Kenai Peninsula Borough School District staff vote to strike

(Kenai Peninsula Borough School District graphic)

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District employees voted Wednesday to strike next fall over rising health care costs. Members of both unions representing teachers and support staff in the school district voted overwhelmingly in support of the strike if both parties can’t agree on terms of a new contract this summer.

Negotiations over the renewal of a collective bargaining agreement between district employees and administrators has been going on for over a year.

Negotiations moved into non-binding arbitration earlier this year, but once again stalled over health care costs.

David Brighton is the president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association. He argues that some staff won’t be able to keep up with rising health care costs.  

We need premiums that we can afford,” he said. “There are some support staff employees that will end up having to write a check for the district to cover the cost of health care because their paycheck, it’s just absorbed.”

The school district offers two health care plans to employees, which vary in cost. Those plans determine the district’s contribution toward employee premiums, which is either 90 or 85 percent.

However, employees and the district have been splitting premiums in half for the last couple of years because total healthcare spending has reached a cap laid out in the current collective bargaining  agreement.

That’s led to employees paying roughly $3,700 or $6,000 in health care premiums this fiscal year.

“So we need to reduce the premium costs,” Brighton said. “We need to remove the cap because that’s shifting the cost from the district to the employees.”

Pegge Erkeneff is the spokesperson for the district.

“As we know that healthcare is continuing to rise, the district did make an offer or proposal that adopted the arbitrator’s recommendations, plus went beyond the arbitrators’ recommendations in the offers,” she said.

The arbitrator recommended that the district increase its share of employee premiums from 50 percent to 70 percent once the health care spending cap has been reached for the year. In its offer, the district also offered to increase the total dollar amount of its contribution slightly.

Both unions rejected the proposal, asking for the spending cap to be eliminated entirely and for the district to pay for 85 percent of all employee premiums. The school district rejected the idea, saying it was too expensive.

It’s unclear if both parties can find middle ground on health care, which appears to be the remaining sticking point in negotiations. If they can’t, it may be difficult to avoid a strike in the fall.

“We are continuing to hope that negotiations will continue through the summer and a tentative agreement will be reached prior to the new school year,” Erkeneff said.

However, there is no set timeline for the district and both unions to return to the bargaining table.