The Juneau School District is at a turning point. In my 25 years of teaching in Juneau, and 30 years as a resident, it has never felt so critical to our community to complete teachers’ contract negotiations. There are three important reasons: 1) pay and health benefits must be competitive in order to both prevent good teachers from leaving the profession and attract good teachers here; 2) settling the contract now is an important acknowledgement of the work teachers have done throughout the Covid pandemic; and 3) settling the contract now will provide a more stable and attractive situation for an incoming superintendent, as well as economic benefits to the community of Juneau.
First, in order to attract new teachers to Juneau and keep the ones we have in the profession, the pay and health benefits must be able to sufficiently cover the costs of living. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of living in the United States has gone up 17-18% since 2019, and in Juneau that’s higher. Despite the claim that inflation is cooling (a paltry .1% in December), the January Consumer Price Index confirmed that homegoods and energy prices remain stubbornly high with a 6.5% increase over last year. After three very difficult years of Covid and a minimal increase to the last three-year contract, teacher pay and benefits must increase to bring quality teachers to Juneau, and keep the ones we have from leaving. The number of teachers across the country leaving the profession is staggering. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at least 300,000 public-school teachers in the U.S. left teaching between February 2020 and May 2022 for equal or better paying jobs with lower stress.
It is also essential a fair contract be passed now to acknowledge the hard work of Juneau teachers. Teachers have adapted quickly to ever-changing Covid requirements, online and hybrid teaching, school violence, and the agendizing of school curriculum. An urgency on the part of the school board and the district to complete the contract would show appreciation for that work. This is year two of negotiations, and to many of us, dragging it on feels disrespectful. It is the wrong time to stall over small issues, since teacher morale has been low and is still recovering from the past several years. COVID teaching has been the hardest three years many teachers have ever faced in their careers, carrying the weight of academic teaching while also providing students with social-emotional support. Here are some of the things that, along with a full school curriculum, teachers and students had to process together since 2020: a pandemic with no end in sight, a country divided by politics, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, the deadliest fires and floods the U.S. has ever seen, a de-stabilizing war in Ukraine, personal isolation, family stress, economic struggles, the stress of returning to school and contentious masking policies. Teachers and school staff had to help them process these uncertainties and events every day, along with teaching content.
My final point on why to settle the contract now is how the Juneau School District and the city of Juneau will benefit. A fair and quickly settled contract makes the Juneau School District much more attractive for a new superintendent, as well as benefiting the community of Juneau economically. Good superintendent candidates will not want to apply to our district if we have an unresolved contract after two school years of negotiating. Economically, Juneau will also get a boost. Based on my 25 years of experience, all of the teachers I know love to both patronize and partner with local businesses and restaurants because they are community-oriented. It is part of the teacher persona. And as is true anywhere, increased wages for any group of local workers finds its way into the local economy, circulating and feeding restaurants, local retailers, and numerous other businesses that provide goods and services.
I encourage the Juneau School District to support the swift conclusion of our teacher contract negotiations and to pressure the Legislature to fully fund education. The well-being of our young people, community members, and teachers depends upon it.
• Jamie Marks is a 25-year teacher in the Juneau School District who currently teaches at Thunder Mountain High School. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.