Although the teachers’ contract is unresolved, the school board was under a legal deadline to pass its $22 million budget before the end of the month. But budgets can be changed: “We are in ongoing negotiations, and that will have an impact on this budget, as those become settled and we move forward,” Superintendent Frank Hauser told the board.

The Sitka School District has been unable to reach a new contract agreement with the union representing its teachers.

Members of the Sitka Education Association spoke to the Sitka School Board directly, at the board’s last regular meeting on April 20.

Teachers were hopeful that the bargaining impasse could be resolved, as it’s only the second time in 25 years that negotiations have failed.

The details of the negotiations between the SEA and the Sitka School District are not public. However, it was clear from testimony before the school board on April 20 that the issue is salaries. Sitka teachers in the recent past have accepted deals that postponed pay increases, in order to assist the district manage its finances under a tighter state education budget.

But now SEA negotiators feel teachers have fallen behind – so far that it’s hurting recruitment and retention in a district that used to be a plum choice for the state’s educators.

SEA president and Sitka High teacher Mike Vieira announced the impasse, only the second time this has happened in 25 years.

“We don’t have anyone currently in our association who can remember having done this before,” Vieira said. “It’s in a place that can go down a road that can become divisive, and it’s not a place that we’ve ever been. So I’m expressing concern that we’re there. And I’m expressing hope that we can find a way to work ourselves out of that.”

Vieira explained that the days of hefty state pensions (Tier I and Tier II in the Teachers’ Retirement System) for retired teachers were long gone. 70 percent of his membership was now covered under what amounts to a savings plan – known as “Tier III.”

“They (Tier III teachers) don’t have the flexibility to wait for their salary to increase because they need to take those dollars and put them in account and let them sit for as many years as possible, so that they can have a chance of success in retirement,” Vieira said. “They don’t have access to Social Security. They have one leg to stand on in retirement and it’s based on the amount of money that they earn today.” 

Sitka High American Government teacher Howard Wayne is not one of those whose retirement will depend on how much he can save out of his salary, but he brought his long perspective to the board. He’s from Southeast Alaska, the child of Alaskan teachers, and he’s seen a shift in the culture of education, most noticeable during five years when he served as principal of Sitka High.

“I saw as an administrator, and having grown up in this region, places like Juneau and Sitka were coveted by teachers all around the state,” Wayne said. “And when I was first applying for jobs back in the late 90s, and in early 2000, it was not uncommon for the Sitka schools to have 100 to 150 applicants for each position.”

Wayne was a principal in Sitka between 2005 and 2010. The state adopted the Tier III retirement in 2006.

He called it a “watershed moment.”

“I saw a relatively quick change,” said Wayne. “And it was becoming more and more difficult to find teachers to come to this region. And it was partly because of the retirement system, but also because the salaries were not as competitive as other places.”

Sitka High Science teacher Stacy Golden is another 20-year veteran, who can also look forward to a retirement under the state’s original plan. But she was concerned for the well-being of her younger colleagues. That teachers everywhere have been under a heavy strain during the pandemic is universally understood. Golden said it was far from over for educators.

“It’s not suddenly going to get easy again (after the pandemic),” said Golden. ” We have kids with massive social emotional needs and new challenges from the last few years. We have gaps in curriculum that we need to deal with. And so I feel like the challenges of the pandemic, the poor retirement process for our Tier III teachers, the increase to the cost of living, all of the challenges and where we are with negotiations, is just something that I would ask… and really make funding teachers as a priority and figure out where the other money has to come from. It’s needed by your staff at this point. And I’m sorry to ask for that. But I kind of feel like that’s where we are.”

Sitka High Librarian Beau Hedrick said that the excitement of landing a job in a place like Sitka can sometimes override long-term considerations for young teachers. He said the bubble would usually burst after a couple of years.

“And then they finally sit down and talk to a financial planner, they finally talk to somebody and they realize ‘You’re out of your mind, you will never be able to retire with what you’re doing today. You need to put in 50% of your paycheck today, for the rest for another 30 years, and you might have a possibility of retirement, there is no social security, there is no there’s nothing else for you except what you contribute,'” Hedrick said.

Hedrick said the idea of Sitka as a place to work for two or three years before moving on to something better was “unheard of” when he joined the district 20 years ago. “You’d work there until you were done,” he said.

The only item on the Sitka School Board’s agenda April 20 was the adoption of next year’s budget. These remarks from SEA members all came during persons-to-be-heard, and under board rules members were not allowed to respond. Sitka High teacher Betty Richter argued for the importance of retention, saying teachers were “changing the world,” and at the same time nudged the board back to the budget.

“Please put teachers first,” she pleaded. “Show us that we are valued by giving us an improved compensation, a competitive Alaskan wage. You have to put those big rocks in first, before you filter in all the sand.”

Under pressure to meet its legal deadline, the board approved the final budget as submitted, $22,057,629 for next year, without any adjustment for teacher salaries. Superintendent Frank Hauser said contracts would be issued to tenured teachers, on the understanding that they could change, once the impasse is resolved.

“We are in ongoing negotiations, and that will have an impact on this budget, as those become settled and we move forward,” said Hauser. “And so we have had some great conversations. And I’m feeling I’m optimistic. So I’ve heard optimism a few times tonight, and I would like to just reiterate that.”

As in past years, the amount for instruction – or teacher salaries – in the 2023 budget is almost 80-percent of all expenses.

Note: This story was updated on 4-24-22 to reflect that the SEA and the Sitka School District were previously at an impasse 25 years ago, in 1997. Read the article in the Daily Sitka Sentinel.