As teacher contract dispute continues, Anchorage School District and teachers union schedule third round of mediation

After two days of contract negotiations, the Anchorage School district and the Anchorage Education Association — that’s the district teachers’ union — have agreed to a third round of mediation.

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Negotiations with the mediator went late into the night on Wednesday, ending at about 1:30 a.m. But the district and the teachers’ union still haven’t reached an agreement. It was expected that if the mediation failed, the negotiations would move to arbitration.

However, ASD Chief of Human Resources Todd Hess says that both mediation sessions brought the two sides closer to a resolution.

“Then, at the end of that, after everybody has a chance to get a couple hours sleep because it was a long day yesterday (Wednesday), people say, ‘you know, we made good progress. We’re hopeful. We think we can reach a positive resolution,'” Hess said. “And the mediator agrees again to come back up. So I think that’s very positive.”

Anchorage Education Association president Tom Klaameyer echoed that sentiment. He says the two main points of contention have been over salary increases and curriculum changes.

“And frankly, it’s not so much the actual curriculum, although there some people that aren’t exactly happy with that, but it’s more the implementation,” Klaameyer said.

Klaameyer says the new curriculum was implemented poorly and described the lesson plans as “scripted.” District representatives say the new curriculum was introduced to help improve low student performance on standardized tests.

During school board public testimony for the last couple months, many teachers testified that the curriculum changes were negatively affecting their teaching. They also specifically accused both Hess and Superintendent Deena Bishop of minimizing teachers’ complaints. Hess was quoted in several testimonies, describing the situation as a manufactured crisis in a district general leadership meeting.

When questioned about that comment, Hess said the remark was taken out of context.

“I was actually referring to an article put out by the Oregon School Board’s Association,” Hess said. “And they were talking about tactics that were used by unions around the country, and the term crisis was included in that document that I was sharing with people.”

In a video of that leadership meeting obtained by Alaska Public Media, Hess makes no mention of the Oregon School Board’s Association when he makes those remarks.

Hess explicitly states “we have a manufactured crisis.” He then goes on to list ways that he believed the union was “rallying the troops.”

“They identify issues. Some are correct; many are not,” Hess said during the leadership meeting. “Talking about principal intimidation, I believe that’s a manipulation. Talking about certain curricular issues, I believe those are exaggerations.”

In a separate interview, Hess clarified that he believes the unions are employing the “manufactured crisis” tactic, and not the teachers.

Another part of the contract disputes involves salaries. Right now, the union has brought their proposal down to a 9.5 percent increase to annual salaries over three years; the district’s counter offer is 2.25 percent over three years. The district says that the raises that the union is asking for would cost millions, resulting in layoffs and increases to class sizes, both of which tend to negatively affect school performance.

AEA president Klaameyer says a point of contention is that a section of the Anchorage School District budget that was set aside for pending negotiations last year was not included on this year’s budget. Hess says that money wasn’t specifically designed to be used only for salary negotiations.

“There was a misunderstanding that that section was specific to labor negotiations,” Hess said. “That wasn’t accurate. We negotiate for fuel. We negotiate for power. We do all of those different things, along with labor.”

Klaameyer says that aside from the various issues being negotiated for the contracts, another strain on teachers has been time.

“I think a lot of our members are frustrated because the process has taken so long, [to do] what they view as doing the right thing. ‘Why is it so hard to do the right thing?'” Klaameyer said.

Both Klaameyer and Hess said their respective agencies hope that the negotiations can be resolved before the worst case scenario, which would most likely be a strike.

The date for the third wave of mediation has not yet been set.