Teachers in the Anchorage School District are working without a contract. That’s how they began the school year and two months of negotiations between the teachers union and the district have failed. There’s a wide gap between the salary increase teachers are asking for and the offer from the district. The parties are in mediation Oct. 18 and 19.
Generally, ASD teacher contracts last for three years, but for the past two years, Anchorage teachers have had year-to-year contracts. For Tom Klaameyer, it feels like the negotiations have been never ending. He’s the head of the Alaska Education Association, the teachers union.
“Having started the subsequent year with an expired contract, we’ve just been at this for so long, that I think it’s become difficult,” Klaameyer said.
The initial request from the AEA was a 10.25 percent increase in a three-year contract. The district’s initial offer was a zero percent increase for the first two years and then a flat $500 increase the third year.
Currently, the AEA is requesting a salary increase of 9.5 percent over three years. It would end up being 3 percent for the first two years and then 3.5 percent the third year. The school district is offering a 2.25 percent increase over three years. That would be zero percent the first year, followed by a .75 percent increase the second year and a 1.5 percent increase the third year.
The dispute comes during the longest recession in state history. For the past three years, the BSA, or Base Student Allocation, from the Legislature has been flat. That’s the money that the district receives per student from the state. The Legislature did allocate $5.7 million in its last budget, but ASD Chief Financial Officer Jim Anderson says it’s not enough.
“Well, you do that for two or three years in a row, it’s really not flat funding, because other costs keep going up,” Anderson said. “Utilities go up, rent goes up, contracts for copiers, paper, all those things keep increasing.”
Anderson says teachers already receive raises every year — called step increases — of about 2 percent based on experience and education level.
Klaameyer says that the union is frustrated that despite stagnant salaries for teachers, higher-level administrators in the school district received significant raises a year and a half ago.
“From the time that the previous superintendent, when Ed Graff was there, and hen when they hired Dr. Bishop — I’d have to look at the numbers again — it was something like from $180,000 to $230,000,” Klaameyer said. “And then next year, she got a 5 percent raise while everybody else was getting zeroes.” (Editor’s Note: The district disputed that the raise for Bishop was as high as 5 percent. In fact, she received a pay cut of 1.25 percent due to furloughs.)
Anderson, with the district, defended those raises, noting administrators are exempt from step increases, and that Superintendent Deena Bishop cut administrative positions in order to allow for that funding. Overall, it resulted in about $80,000 less in spending for the fiscal year. Anderson says giving teachers comparable raises isn’t feasible.
“Now for us to do that for teachers, we have to lay off 600 to 800 of them,” Anderson said. “Well that’s not possible.”
In its contract request, the AEA has also asked for more flexibility for teachers in their lesson plans. Klaameyer says the district implemented curriculum that limits the ways teachers can teach. Anderson says that’s an unfair characterization.
The mediation phase of the contract negotiation is the second step in a five-step negotiation process, after the initial offer. If the mediation doesn’t result in an agreement, the next phase would be bringing in an arbitrator to make an offer that both sides could agree to. If that doesn’t work, the two parties are obligated to bargain one last time before teachers could strike. That’s something neither side wants. Jennifer Haldane works in Human Resources for the school district.
“At this point we are just working towards reaching an agreement,” Haldane said. “That’s the stage of mind we’re in right now.”
Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the Legislature allocated $5.7 million in additional funds, not $10 million. It’s also been updated to reflect that the Anchorage School District disputes Tom Klaameyer’s assertion that Deena Bishop received a 5 percent raise her second year. She in fact did not get a raise.