Deterioration of contract negotiations could lead Mat-Su teachers to hold a strike vote, union leader warns

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District last week gave what it called its “last best offer” to the union representing the district’s teachers, but if the district does not come back to the bargaining table, the head of the union says it will hold a vote on whether to strike.

Teachers and the district have been working on an expired contract as the teachers union, the Mat-Su Education Association, and the district have struggled for more than 18 months to reach a new agreement.

Superintendent Randy Trani, in an op-ed published this week, said that the the school board’s offer “represents a fair middle ground that provides teachers financial stability in an uncertain time.”

The offer has frustrated the association’s president, Dianne Shibe.

“We’re close. Don’t walk away now. And yet they have walked away,” Shibe said.

The contract negotiations started in March 2019 and are hung up on three major issues: whether the contract and pay increases would begin retroactively to the 2019-20 school year, the amount of yearly percentage pay increases and whether the district will have more choice in the health insurance provider and plans.

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Shibe said that the pay scale for teachers has been eroded over the years, and now Mat-Su teachers are paid less than teachers in all of the other large school districts in the state.

In an emailed statement, district spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey said that because Mat-Su does not have a diverse tax base like Anchorage, it receives a smaller local contribution. She said the board’s offer in terms of contributions to health care cost is actually better than in Anchorage and that the district is “committed to offering competitive salaries and benefits to our teacher through efficient and responsible use of public funds.”

At a tense school board meeting Wednesday, Shibe and other educators urged the school board and its negotiation team to go back to the bargaining table.

The soonest the union could actually strike is October, Shibe said in an interview Thursday. She began polling teachers about the potential strike vote last Friday, and should have the final results Thursday night.

“If they were interested in going back to the table like we asked, we would have heard from them today,” Shibe said. “So they’re thumbing their nose at us and saying, ‘Fine. You guys go ahead and strike.’ ”

The union would rather keep negotiating, she said.

Trani in the op-ed wrote that the district is facing financial hardship as enrollment decreases and state and borough contribution amounts are uncertain. He also said that K-12 funding in Alaska and the nation does not provide the compensation educators deserve.

”I don’t think there is any way that teachers can be paid appropriately for the work they do with our children. Teachers literally change people’s lives,” he wrote.

That op-ed and a letter from Trani to teachers drew the ire of union negotiators and Shibe, who condemned the tactics as a political move.

“Members of the team believed they would have an opportunity to evaluate the proposal, discuss the terms with its membership, and provide an answer, as well as a counteroffer if necessary,” Shibe wrote in a statement. “Instead, Superintendent Trani short-circuited the process by contacting every single teacher in the MSBSD with the terms of the contract and published editorial pieces in major news outlets with (biased) opinions.”

In an emailed statement, Morrissey said that “it is appropriate for the District to communicate factual information related to bargaining directly to teachers and the public.”

Teachers in the Mat-Su district have had a difficult year amid the coronavirus pandemic, Shibe said.

“We’re risking our lives here. We’ve already had four schools closed,” Shibe said.

At the Wednesday meeting, board member Jim Hart said that “for the past several years, pay raises have been nonexistent,” and that Trani had pushed the board toward a better offer to teachers. Hart also said he looks forward to a counteroffer from the association and successful negotiations.

Shibe said the association has not heard from the board’s negotiation team Thursday.

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