Ketchikan’s recent school board elections focused on the district’s ongoing and contentious teacher-contract negotiations. Those elected or re-elected campaigned on a platform of change and seemed amenable to compromise with Ketchikan Education Association negotiators.

Now that the new board is seated, what has to happen to make that change and compromise a reality?

The first Ketchikan School Board meeting after the October local elections ended with a two-hour executive session for discussion of teacher-contract negotiations.

At the end of that closed-door discussion, new School Board President Matt Eisenhower announced briefly that direction was given, and no action taken.

Teachers were disappointed.

“The community has asked for a fair resolution, quickly, to teacher contracts,” said KEA Vice President Sarah Campbell.

She said the district has been delaying that resolution, and now it’s been nearly two years since the former teacher contract expired.

“The members of the district’s team will sit and meet with us for two and a half, three hours, three and a half hours, and then say, ‘well, we have to go ask the board for direction. We should have an answer for you in a couple of weeks,’” she said. “We’re two years into this. That’s not working out very well.”

Part of the problem, she said, is the district’s negotiating team hasn’t been authorized to talk about the two main sticking points: Salaries and health insurance.

“At this point, technically, we’re at impasse. Impasse was reached and declared by both sides in May,” she said. “But we’ve been trying to meet with the district on and off, so we can reach a conclusion or settle a fair deal.”

Campbell said teachers finally were able to present their case on those two points during an Oct. 3rd negotiations. But, without any board members on the district’s negotiating team, she said no decisions could be made.

Campbell said teachers had hoped that during the Oct. 10th meeting, the board would have taken some action: adding board members to the negotiations team, for example, or opening up negotiations so the public could observe.

It is a different school board, though, and Board President Eisenhower said the brand-new members need time.

“The reality of it is, is we’ve got to take a little bit of time to get the other board members up to speed, but there’s some good news coming out of negotiations,” he said.

Eisenhower said the two negotiating teams have tentatively agreed on a lot of things. Those agreements are all over smaller language changes, but he said those agreements show positive movement.

“We’ve got tentatively agreed to probably 95 percent of all the other language in the contract, so now there’s a couple of last little pieces, as well as the two big pieces that mean a lot,” he said.

Those two big pieces will potentially cost a lot of money, depending on where the two sides settle. Can the district afford it? Campbell said yes – but the board has to start approving and submitting budgets to the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly that include salary increases.

“They’re putting a bare-bones budget forth and hoping then, oh the borough assembly will pass it and it won’t cause any unrest,” she said. “But really what they’re doing is short-changing the students in this community.”

Campbell said the school board and the assembly are pro-education, and should be able to work together on such a budget. She adds that there is an education reserve fund that contains $4 million, and the district regularly ends the fiscal year with a surplus.

Eisenhower, though, said there’s a limit to what the district receives, and the board needs to work within that limit.

“The reality of it is, is that we are a grant recipient,” he said. “We get 75 percent of our dollars, roughly, from the state. The other 25 percent come from our local borough. But because of state law, the amount of contribution is capped.”

Ketchikan’s borough does not currently fund schools to that cap.

Eisenhower said despite their current differences, he’s optimistic the two sides will come to an agreement before the end of the year.

In the meantime, Campbell said a point of contention is that “steps and lanes” are frozen. Those are pay increases teachers normally would receive automatically as they gain seniority or further their education.

She said teachers would like the board to unfreeze those steps and lanes, as a show of good faith.

Eisenhower said he understands the teachers’ frustration over frozen steps.

“I also recognize, too, that there is a piece of this negotiating that has to be left to the negotiating teams. If we as a board micromanage some of that process within the negotiating teams, that can be challenging and that can have some unintended consequences,” he said. “I can tell you, though, that the board is watching that, is very interested in that, and has given direction to our negotiating team as to what our desires are.”

That direction was given in executive session, though, so it can’t be revealed for a news story.

The Ketchikan School Board meets on Wednesday, Oct. 24th, and will talk again in executive session about teacher-contract negotiations. The next negotiations session between the district and the teachers’ union is 4 p.m. Oct. 31st.

If an agreement isn’t reached soon, mediation has been scheduled for the last week of November; and, as a last resort, arbitration is set for Dec. 17th and 18th.