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Teacher And Support Staff Contracts Settle Before School Gets Out

Teachers in Fairbanks are voting tomorrow night on a new three-year contract with the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. And Saturday morning, the district’s support staff members will vote on their new contract. The contracts are focused on retaining employees and keeping students safe.

Both these education union contracts came out of a very different climate than last time. In 2015, the contract for the Education Support Staff Association, or ESSA expired in June that year, and it wasn’t until November of the following year that it was settled. The teachers’ union contract also expired months before a new agreement was reached, and some teachers left district employment and had moved on by time their contract was settled.

That’s why negotiators were so pleased to end the school year with contracts ready to ratify.

“It’s always good to have them settled before the current one expires.”

That’s Sandi Ryan, president of the Fairbanks Education Association. She was reached at a National Education conference where she was making a presentation. She and other FEA members meet monthly with Superintendent Karen Gaborik, and share concerns. Ivory McDaniel, the district’s Director of Labor Relations, says that established relationship helped the bargaining.

“We walked in where we had a relationship with a lot of trust and respect. It went really well.”

Both the teachers’ union and the district were aware of budget limitations, but both sides wanted to find a fix for retention.

“Part of the reason we see turnover, is simply we do not have a quality retirement system anymore in this state. Its almost an incentive to get trained in Alaska, then leave.”

FEA’s Ryan says any new teachers are hired in the last of three tiers of their retirement plan. As those in the top tiers age and retire, that leaves about half the district’s teachers, those in the third tier, not knowing how much they will have in retirement.

The teams agreed the district will boost the employee’s 403b supplemental retirement account. Now it will match teacher contributions of 1 percent of the employee’s annual salary. Andreu DeGraw is the district’s Chief Operations Officer. He says FNSBSD is the only school district in the state that has started addressing retention this way.

“We introduced in with FEA a 403 (b) match, a 100 percent match on one percent of their salaries. So, its somewhat modest, but again, in the environment that we are in, we’re just happy to’ve been able to introduce this, I think it’s kind of on the leading edge, statewide.”

The teachers’ contract also addressed the escalating costs of health care and insurance.

The Education Support Staff Association, ESSA, has 750 members that cover 123 different job classifications from Food Service workers, secretaries, janitors, electricians, data technicians. About 40% of district employees.

ESSA also reported a cordial negotiating climate but with an innovative technique called interest-based bargaining. District negotiator Ivory McDaniel explains.

 “We did three full days…full days, of Interest-Based Bargaining, where we identified what we were desiring, and so it really helped us understand what their priorities were, but we also developed the relationship.”

“This time, with the district, it has been 1,000 times better. Three years ago, er, last bargaining session, was so argumentative.”

And that was Jasmine Adkins-Brown, ESSA President. She says some sticking points in this year’s negotiations for support staff were safety issues and training. Unlike teachers, support staff members don’t have paid in-service days in their contracts. Their first day is the students’ first day, and their last is the students’ last.

“ESSA has only had one day of in-service for as long as I’ve been in the district, so say 10 years? One day is not enough.”

Daryl Walker, the chief spokesperson for the ESSA team says they and the district have put together a training committee to look across all the job classifications and find time to update members’ skill building, and keep them current with the latest student initiatives.

“And try to find that common ground, where it works for everybody, and more importantly, for the students.”

Walker says training on dealing with violence in the schools and support employees’ safety is now written into the contract.

“Also some safety equipment.

Some of the safety issues involved nurses. Because the district doesn’t pay what a nurse could make elsewhere, the traditional “school nurse” role of an RN has been filled with Health Aides and LPNs, Licensed Professional Nurses.