Teachers and school board members talk during the Juneau Board of Education and Juneau Education Association’s annual meet and greet in mid November. JEA contract negotiation team declared impasse last Friday and are in the process of filing for federal mediation. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Teachers and school board members talk during the Juneau Board of Education and Juneau Education Association’s annual meet and greet in mid November. JEA contract negotiation team declared impasse last Friday and are in the process of filing for federal mediation. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Juneau teachers union declares impasse amid drawn-out negotiations

Still, the teachers union and district express optimism about working toward agreement.

Weeks after a heated discussion between the Juneau Education Association and the Juneau District regarding JEA’s discontent with the current status of the contract negotiation cycle between the pair — JEA declared an impasse.

[School board and teachers union confront ‘disconnect’ and district financial deadlock]

“They mismanaged their finances and put themselves into a deep hole — but it doesn’t mean they can’t negotiate a fair contract,” said Chris Heidemann, JEA president and Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé teacher. “If the district refuses to provide financial terms that meet the needs of quality educators then the district will find itself in a far worse staffing shortage than they do right now.”

Heidemann said the JEA negotiation team made the declaration last Friday and currently JEA is in the process of filing for federal mediation, which members hope will help resolve negotiations, which Heidemann described as “going nowhere.”

The current contract negotiation cycle has yet to reach a new agreement after nearly 10 months of bargaining and the previous contract expired in late June.

Heidemann said over the past couple of contract cycles, the district has failed to offer an adequate financial package to JEA members, and pointed specifically to the initial contract proposed by the district which included an almost 27% decrease in the school’s contributions to health premiums, which Heidemann said “is quite insulting” and “unjustifiable.”

“Nobody should get what they want, nobody should get totally blown out of the water, it should be a fair compromise — but I don’t think they’re making much at all,” Heidemann said.

Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss said the district was “a bit surprised” to hear that JEA declared impasse as she said the district negotiation team felt there was room for more dialogue and negotiations to be had before an impasse would be needed.

She said the news of the impasse is not atypical given the financial circumstances happening in the district and across the state, however, she said the longer negotiations go, it can create more challenges.

“Revenue in the state has been declining for the past few years, so it is not all that uncommon given the context,” Weiss said. ”We’ve been at it for a while.”

She said the district remains eager to find a solution that works for both parties and said she believes the district’s initial offer is fair, noting it would not have been offered if it wasn’t.

“We didn’t believe their initial offer was feasible — our needs continue to increase and our resources don’t increase at the same rate, so given the circumstances, it’s fair,” Weiss said. “In order for us to meet their initial offer it would mean an increase in our financial dilemma.”

Weiss said the district is in a difficult situation currently but remains hopeful a resolution can be made soon.

“I remain optimistic that the processes will reach that settlement where everyone will feel valued,” she said. “We hold all of our staff at great value and we are so appreciative of the work they do every day.”

Deedie Sorensen, school board president agreed with Weiss and said the news of JEA declaring an impasse was a bit of a surprise to her but said she sees the impasse as just another step in the process in which she hopes the federal mediator can be a help.

“It’s a process,” Sorensen said. ”We have confidence in our team — our team is constrained by a number of things including financial realities.”

A recent audit of the district found the district has run up a deficit of $3.2 million over the past several years and in the past fiscal year the district spent an operating fund deficit of over $620,000 while failing to adhere to district policies that could have lessened the total. The district has until the end of June to offset its recent $620,000 of overspending identified in an audit before the next budgeting cycle starts.

It also comes on the heels of several years of flat funding from the state and increased costs due to inflation.

[‘There’s no easy way out of this’: City discusses school district’s overall $3.2M deficit]

Sorensen said it is a difficult situation, but said as long as the state continues to flat fund school districts across the state, it will be difficult to find a reality where teachers get paid what she thinks they deserve.

“The money only goes so far — it’s a finite amount of money,” she said. “I will never say that the teachers are being compensated at the level they should be compensated because the state has made that impossible — every teacher in the state of Alaska should be making more than they are making.”

Heidemann agreed that the state’s flat funding is “absolutely the main driver” for the district’s “Inadequate and insufficient” negotiations thus far, and said he thinks the state’s lack of funding is “shameful.” However, he said the district needs to find a way to provide for its teachers or potentially lose them to better opportunities out of the state.

“It is the driver of the financial situation that all schools in Alaska find themselves in, but that can’t mean there can’t be increases because our costs are going up just like everyone else,” Heidemann said. “I’m glad we’re at an impasse and we’re taking steps to move through and move forward.”

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

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