Juneau Education Association president Chris Heidemann talks during the Juneau Board of Education and JEA’s annual meet and greet Tuesday night. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Juneau Education Association president Chris Heidemann talks during the Juneau Board of Education and JEA’s annual meet and greet Tuesday night. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

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

“There’s no happiness anywhere in this.”

Tensions were high Tuesday evening at the Juneau Board of Education and Juneau Education Association’s annual meet and greet as JEA leaders came ready to express its members’ growing sense of disconnect between the board and the people it represents within the district.

The JEA discussion, led by its president and Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé teacher, Chris Heidemann, communicated disappointment among JEA members regarding the lack of action by the school board to engage in the current contract negotiation cycle with JEA, which has yet to reach a new agreement after nearly 10 months of bargaining and the previous contract expired in late June.

During the meeting at JDHS, he said the initial contract proposed by the district was “frankly insulting,” and specifically pointed to the contract’s inclusion of an almost 27% decrease in the school’s contributions to health premiums.

“There’s just this disconnect,” said Jess Cobley, JEA’s middle school representative at large. “We’re frustrated that we are not being heard.”

Members of JEA also noted their issues with the district go beyond the bargaining deal and pointed to the district’s current financial situation, which according to a recent independent third-party audit, the district is in a deficit of over $620,000, as a major concern.

[Audit shows ‘deeply concerning’ deficit for school district]

“Not so much the bargain, I feel like the actual profession of teaching is crumbling beneath our feet,” Heidemann said.

Heidemann added after the meeting: “I think we have an extremely good school board, and I respect their willingness to take this job and I don’t envy the position that they are in, but I want them to prioritize providng a contract that acknowledges the sacrifices the teachers have made throughout the past few years.”

Members of Juneau Board of Education and Juneau Education Association meet to talk at the pair’s annual meet and greet Tuesday night. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Members of Juneau Board of Education and Juneau Education Association meet to talk at the pair’s annual meet and greet Tuesday night. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Deedie Sorensen, school board president, acknowledges the members’ concerns and said she thinks though the board and JEA might be on different sides of the bargain, they are the same sides of the growing problem of a lack of adequate funding toward education happening in both Juneau and across the state.

“There’s no happiness anywhere in this,” Sorensen said.

Board Vice President Emil Mackey agreed.

“There’s just not a lot of money — flat funding by the state has eliminated our wiggle room,” Mackey said. “What’s your problem is also our problem.”

Mackey identified flat funding by the state, inflation and the overall rise in the cost of living as contributing factors to the district’s financial difficulties, and noted to the JEA members that there will likely be “tough decisions” for the district to make in the next few years to ease the burden but emphasized, “we’re on the same team.”

Mackey said he saw only four options left on the table to alleviate some of the burdens on the district if the state’s flat funding continues: cut staffing, cut programs, cut buildings or find “efficiencies.” Mackey emphasized there needs to be “serious conversations” about what the district should look like in the future given the decline in funding.

“It will be painful, but we need to have a constructive conversation to face this head-on,” he said.

After more than an hour of discussion, JEA and the board agreed more conversation and communication needs to happen to address the problems the district is facing and will continue to face in the future. Unofficial agreements were made to develop a task force to involve educators at a greater level in the board’s decision-making processes in the future.

“What are we doing? What are we going to do? Because this is a big problem,” said Laura Mulgrew, vice president of JEA. “I think it’s really time we take a look at the delivery of education in Juneau and find what fulfills the needs of the student with what we do have.”

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

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