PALMER — About 300 teachers packed a Mat-Su school board meeting Wednesday night to voice frustrations over a contract stalemate amid skyrocketing health care costs.
Many at the regular meeting held at Matanuska-Susitna Borough District headquarters in Palmer were dressed in black and held yellow signs saying "Respect=Fair contract."
Mat-Su teachers, like their counterparts in Anchorage, are working without a contract. The multi-year negotiated agreements that both districts operate under ended June 30. Anchorage teachers rejected an offer last week.
But there's no contract to reject in Mat-Su — or room for negotiations.
The district and teachers union declared an impasse Nov. 9, according to district spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey. That means mediation starting late December or early January.
"There is no more coming to the table," Morrissey said in an interview Thursday.
Health insurance is at the center of the debate because it costs the district $40 million a year, second only to teacher salaries, officials say.
Teachers want the district to "move toward the middle" in future negotiations, Tim Walters, president of the Mat-Su Education Association teachers union, told the board Wednesday night.
Walters characterized the district's current offer as teachers working as hard as they do now — or harder — for three days less pay. He also said the district wants teachers to pay another $2,100 in annual insurance premiums, plus any potential increases next year.
District officials, however, say have not yet calculated any cost increases. Premiums will be released in spring by the Public Education Health Trust, the NEA-Alaska program that provides health insurance for Mat-Su teachers.
In another point of contention, the district has requested that the trust release aggregate claims data — a collection of health expenses in categories, according to information on the district's negotiations update web page.
The data, the district site continues, "is NOT a reporting of health records by (a) person. It is NOT a summary of personal identifiable records for you or your dependents."
Nonetheless, several teachers accused the district of trying to get private health information to see if adopting a self-insured model pencils out for Mat-Su.
Dianne Shibe, an English teacher at Colony High School and teachers union vice president, accused the district of sabotaging negotiations to force the trust to provide health information that's unethical for it to release.
"They're holding the negotiations hostage," Shibe said.
School board members Wednesday night pressed the trust's chief financial officer, Rhonda Kitter, to release the claims information to help the district make sure they're getting a good deal.
The health trust does not give out information on claims, Kitter said firmly during several exchanges.
"We want to know if you really are, and you may be, the best thing we could ever look for," said school board member Ole Larson, referring to the trust. "But we don't know that. What would be wrong with giving us claims data and seeing if the Public Health Trust is the best thing?"
District administrators can "easily" get a quote from Premera or any other potential insurers without the information, Kitter responded.
"You don't need claims data to shop around," she said later, to another board member's question.
The district has made no decisions on future health insurance options, Morrissey said Thursday.
The Mat-Su district operates 47 school sites with nearly 19,000 students in the state's fastest growing area, a borough the size of West Virginia with more than 100,000 residents.
The district's poverty rate rose 30 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to superintendent Monica Goyette.
Numerous teachers told the board they're juggling the standard teacher's workload but also buying furniture and supplies, coming in early and working late, and juggling extra duties.
Wendy DeGraffenried, school nurse at Wasilla Middle School, created an after-school program to teach students about emotions and give them mindfulness strategies.
DeGraffenried also serves on the school's trauma-sensitive team. Students suffering from serious problems show up in her office. She trains other teachers.
None of it is easy, she said. "There is no reason that us, as adults, cannot take the suffering that we potentially are looking at and come to the table."