Education

Anchorage School District and teachers union reach tentative agreement on long-delayed labor contract

After months of disagreement, the Anchorage School District and the Anchorage teachers union announced Friday they have tentatively accepted a three-year agreement that includes benefits such as salary increases for all educators and a new retirement package opportunity for many union members.

The proposed contract, if approved by the Anchorage Education Association and the school board, would run from July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2024. It affects more than 3,000 teachers and other district employees, according to a statement from the district and union.

AEA educators must review the 135-page tentative agreement before holding a ratification vote in mid-February. The school board will consider the ratified agreement for approval at its meeting on Feb. 22.

The benefits, if the contract is accepted by both sides, will be applied retroactively to July 1, said Corey Aist, president of the union, in an interview on Friday. They include annual increases for all educators and increased opportunities for raises based on educational advancement, he said.

The two sides focused on benefits designed to improve student outcomes during the negotiations, Aist said. Goals included improving teacher retention and teachers’ educational attainment.

During the disagreement, the district has stressed that the state of Alaska has not increased the district’s base student allocation since 2017, affecting the ability to conduct long-term planning. The teachers union had argued that teachers have faced a difficult period during the COVID-19 pandemic and now are dealing with rising inflation and staff shortages that have placed new demands on them. Key differences included salaries, the length of the contract and teacher planning time.

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Superintendent Deena Bishop, who is retiring at the end of the school year, said in the statement she recognized the hard work of teachers during a challenging period.

“I want to thank the negotiation teams for their dedication in finding the necessary common ground throughout this process,” Bishop added. “The resulting agreement recognizes educators with a generous compensation and benefits package. It also provides clarity regarding working conditions that I think will benefit not only educators and administrators but also our students, families, and other community stakeholders.”

Aist said that the tentative agreement is a welcome development.

The lack of an agreement so late into the school year added frustration for teachers, Aist said, and hundreds of protesting educators attended a rally outside a school board meeting in October.

Both sides declared an impasse in November. It was broken after six days of federal mediation this month, the Anchorage Education Association said in an email to teachers on Friday.

“It’s been an unprecedented time period,” Aist said in an interview Friday. “Everyone has been working really hard to keep schools open and as front line workers we are more susceptible to exposure and infection. With increased staff shortages we have had a hard time supporting students and families to the levels we want to. When teachers are being pulled from instructional planning time to cover other classes because there are no staff, that eats into their ability to be better prepared.”

Bishop, in an interview, said the salary increases will average out to about 5% in the current, first year of the contract.

It will average out to about a 1.5% in the second year and 2% in the third year.

Those are designed to help with inflation-proofing, and it’s “front-loaded” with a higher increase, providing a reset for educators. Bishop said.

Bishop said the district has always had an attractive compensation package for entry-level teachers. But she said this proposed payment schedule and other benefits will improve opportunities for teachers who stay with the district, as they typically boost their educational level and skills.

“What we wanted to do was ensure that we worked on retaining our senior employees as well,” she said. “So now with this restructuring (of the salary schedule) we are really balancing out that interest in all of our employees so we continue to be attractive and competitive for entry-levels as well as attractive to retain our employees,” she said.

Under the proposed agreement, a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree would receive $53,287, up from $52,242 a year. That starting salary would have remained the same under the district’s initial proposal.

Over the three-year life of the contract, it is expected to add about $75 million to district expenses.

In addition to salary increases, the proposed contract will allow teachers in the Tier III defined contribution tier of the state’s retirement system to contribute to a special retirement plan.

That option affects teachers hired since 2006, more than half the workforce affected by the contract, Bishop said.

They will be able to contribute the value of their unused sick time into the special retirement plan, she said, providing a new avenue to increase retirement savings.

The deal also clarifies expectations related to grading, educator planning time, and meeting duration and frequency, according to the statement.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

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