Education

Anchorage teachers rally as contract negotiations continue with school district

The Anchorage School District and thousands of its teachers and support staff are at odds over contract negotiations that have dragged on since the last school year.

More than 3,000 teachers and others represented by the Anchorage Education Association, and about 1,300 educational support staff represented by TOTEM Association of Educational Support Personnel, have been working under three-year contracts that expired in June.

On Tuesday night, hundreds of Anchorage educators rallied outside a school board meeting, calling on the district to offer more pay and finalize the contracts.

Over the last school year, the Anchorage School District proposed three-year contracts to both unions that would start July 1, 2021.

The district has proposed no increase to the pay scale for union members during those three years, among other unfavorable terms to teachers and staff, officials with the unions said.

The district said in a statement that annual raises would still apply. Its proposed contract for teachers includes annual raises that would average 2%, according to MJ Thim, a spokesman with the district.

The teachers union has proposed a one-year contract to cover the 2021-2022 school year, with a 3.5% increase to the pay scale.

TOTEM, representing support staff such as classroom assistants, has proposed a three-year contract with a total 7.5% increase to the pay scale over three years.

“We are grateful to our teachers for their unwavering dedication to our students,” Superintendent Deena Bishop said in a statement. “These are challenging times for all teachers across our country. From declining enrollment to implementing COVID-19 mitigation plans, our teachers confront new challenges head on. They do all this day in and day out while continuing to educate all students for success in life. We look forward to continuing our work with the Anchorage Education Association to ensure the best possible outcome where teachers will be supported and thrive.”

The district is offering an annual increase to the pay scale of “zero, zero and zero” while asking teachers to do more, said Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association.

Under the district’s proposal for teachers, a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree would receive $52,242 a year, the same as last school year. Under the union’s proposal, a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree would be paid $54,070.

“They are proposing taking away time for us to do the job, and they basically want to micromanage every minute of our time,” Aist said.

The unions are also tangling with the district over proposed health benefits. The teachers union wants a larger contribution from the district for health insurance.

Aist said many teachers in the Anchorage School District are taking home less pay now than they did last school year. They’re paying more for health insurance because the district has not increased the health benefit contribution, he said. And the district has not increased the pay scale, he said.

The teachers union for the last 25 years has used health care plans from the Public Education Health Trust, which provides insurance to public education employees in Alaska.

The district has proposed a solution to the rising health insurance costs that union members face under their current plan, said Thim. The district would move union members onto the district’s plan to address their concerns about rising out-of-pocket expenses, he said. That would also create savings that would benefit the compensation packages of union members. The district plan has kept employee contributions rates flat for the past four years, according to Thim.

The teachers union says the Public Education Health Trust plans are richer in benefits at a lower cost to members, according to an analysis provided on the union’s website.

Teachers would be eligible for 2% raises, ASD says

Aist said the negotiations are happening during an extraordinarily stressful time, with teachers and support staff in short supply and navigating the daily risk of COVID-19 exposure.

“I truly believe the district wants to do the right thing and provide increases in salaries to their employees,” he said. “And they have the money to do it.”

Many members of the teachers union remain eligible for salary increases under the expired contract, based on experience and educational attainment. Many members of the support-staff union, whose lowest starting pay would remain $13.97 an hour under the district’s proposal, also remain eligible for increases under their expired contract, based on experience.

The state of Alaska has not increased the district’s base student allocation since 2017, Thim said.

Currently, the average base salary for a teacher is $75,650 for a work year with 182 days, he said.

Annual raises under the district’s proposed contract would average 2% a year, Thim said, coming out to about $1,400 on average for each teacher.

“ASD’s proposal also includes additional raises for teachers as they reach milestones in their continuing education and obtain advanced degrees,” Thim said.

The proposal from the teachers union would cost the district about $53 million extra over a year’s time, resulting in about a 9.4% increase to the district’s budget, he said.

The district’s proposal would result in an extra $1.3 million annually, increasing the district’s budget about 0.23%, Thim said.

A difficult year for teachers

Teachers who attended the rally outside the school district headquarters at 5530 E. Northern Lights Blvd. said the district’s position makes them feel unappreciated and demoralized at one of the most difficult times in their careers.

A throng of educators gathered outside the building waving signs saying, “No contract — Still working.” Dozens of other protesters lined Northern Lights.

Sarah Glaser, a second-grade teacher at Winterberry Charter School, said the district is sending the message that it does not value its educators.

“It’s insulting and not in good faith,” she said of the district’s positions.

Trudy Keller, an English teacher at Bettye Davis East Anchorage High School who has taught since the late 1960s, said this is the most stressful year she’s ever experienced.

Last year was tough, in part because teachers had to adapt to teaching online during the pandemic, she said. Teachers’ ranks have fallen, and the remaining teachers are struggling to get students back on task and into the groove of in-person classes, she said.

“It’s the hardest year I’ve ever had,” she said. “The teaching has been really intense. And we don’t have a contract, for God’s sake.”

Sarah Cronick, a first-grade teacher at Winterberry, said she and other teachers face large classrooms and not enough support staff.

A relatively new teacher on the lower end of the pay scale, she’s struggling to make ends meet as the cost of living rises, she said.

She hugged one of her students, brought to the rally by another teacher.

“They are asking so much of us,” she said.

Sponsored