The Anchorage School District and the teachers union that represents about 3,300 of its educators agreed Thursday to continue contract negotiations with the help of federal mediators.
The decision follows months of contentious contract negotiations between the district and the union, the Anchorage Education Association. Both the union and district said the agreement to continue mediation is a good sign.
"ASD reports that it is much closer in reaching an agreement," the district said in a statement Thursday morning.
The district and the union have remained locked in contract negotiations since April. In the meantime, union members — including classroom teachers, counselors and school nurses — are working under the terms of their old contract, which expired June 30.
Frustrations continue to mount among Anchorage educators. They've packed Anchorage School Board meetings for months and staged a walkout at Monday's board meeting.
"If you want to know what it is like to run ASD without the backbone of educators, this is what's coming," one middle school teacher told the board before she and hundreds of other educators left the meeting room Monday night.
The district and union agreed in September to move from traditional bargaining, where the two groups talk directly to each other, to mediation. During mediation, federal mediators go back and forth between the groups and try to find a compromise. The groups didn't strike a deal during the first round of mediation in October.
This week, they had their second, two-day round of mediation. The final day stretched from about 8 a.m. Wednesday to 1:30 a.m. Thursday, said Tom Klaameyer, president of the teachers union.
Klaameyer said the groups hit an impasse early Thursday and decided to move to arbitration — the next step in the bargaining process if an agreement can't be reached in mediation. Hours later, Klaameyer said, the mediators called to propose they try mediation once more.
"They feel like meeting one more time could be fruitful, and both sides have agreed," Klaameyer said.
The mediators tasked with helping with negotiations come from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, paid for by the federal government.
Both Klaameyer and Todd Hess, the district's chief human resource officer, said the groups had made progress during mediation. They both declined to say where the major disagreements remain. Those conversations during mediation are confidential, both said.
"I'm very pleased with the progress that we've made," Hess said.
According to the district's and union's most recent contract proposals, the groups remained far apart on a list of items such as salary and the district's contribution toward health insurance premiums. They also don't agree on more intricate changes to contract language, such as:
• A new committee: The union's contract proposal includes the creation of a committee of union members and district representatives that's tasked with making program and curriculum recommendations to the board. The district's contract proposal doesn't include a new committee.
• Pay for additional classes taught: The union wants high school and middle school teachers to be paid for "each additional instructional period taught beyond five periods," according to its proposal. A majority of middle school classroom teachers currently teach six out of the day's seven periods, instead of five, Klaameyer has said. This isn't included in the district proposal.
Klaameyer said the scheduling of an arbitrator will continue in case a deal isn't reached during the continuing mediation. He said, however, he didn't expect the arbitrator to be available until January or February.
During arbitration, both sides present their best offer, and a third-party arbitrator decides how the contract should look. The district and union can decide to accept or reject it. If arbitration fails, the school district and union must return to bargaining at least one more time, Klaameyer said. If the impasse continues, the district could impose a contract. The union could also decide to strike. To do so, a majority of union members must vote to authorize a strike.
Teachers last went on strike in 1994.
Klaameyer said he expected the school district and union to return to mediation within the next few weeks.
Once the district and union reach a contract agreement, union members and the Anchorage School Board still must vote to ratify it before it takes effect.