Mat-Su teacher contract negotiations hit impasse over pay, health insurance

Contract negotiations for teachers in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District are stalled after months of talks, and the teachers union and school district are headed to mediation sometime early next year.

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The negotiations had been underway since February, but both sides declared an impasse in November after failing to reach an agreement.

From the union’s perspective, the problem was that school district negotiators refused to budge from their initial offer, according to Tim Walters, president of the Mat-Su Education Association. The union represents about 1,200 teachers.

“We’ve really still seen no movement from the district whatsoever,” Walters said. “Their response has been that they would like to reduce the district’s deficit through negotiations. So they’re asking all the teachers in the Valley to take a step backwards.”

The district’s offer is to pay teachers for three fewer days per school year than their last contract, Walters said. Among other sticking points, the district wants to reduce its contribution to the teachers’ health trust, which would result in teachers paying about $2,100 more per year for health insurance, he said.

Class sizes in the Mat-Su are already higher than in comparable school districts and finding and keeping qualified teachers is getting more difficult, Walters said.

“I understand times are tough, but I don’t think that the cost of increases to education should rest solely on the backs of teachers,” Walters said.

Student enrollment in the district has grown while school funding from both the state and borough remained flat, and two recent efforts to increase school funding in the borough failed.

One measure would have put a borough-wide sales tax proposal before voters in an upcoming election. The idea of instituting a sales tax has not gone away, and the school district’s superintendent sits on the task force looking into a sales tax.

School district spokesperson Jillian Morrissey said the district’s largest cost after teacher salaries is health insurance, which costs $40 million annually for all of its employees.

“Our school board is mandating that the administration look at that cost, for their fiduciary responsibility, to make sure we’re getting the best deal possible,” Morrissey said.

Despite having hit an impasse in the negotiations, the district is ready for mediation, Morrissey said. That’s when an independent, federally appointed mediator steps in to help with negotiations between the union and school district.

If mediation fails, the negotiations would head to arbitration. But arbitration in Alaska is non-binding, so if that also fails the teachers union could still decide to strike.

Walters, the union president, said if a strike were to happen, it wouldn’t be until next school year, if at all.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.