About 75 of Sitka’s teachers appeared before the Sitka School Board on May 4, 2022, to appeal for an end to a negotiating impasse. (KCAW/Rose)

Sitka’s teachers on the last day of school (5-24-22) ratified a new contract, that union representatives say restores salaries to a competitive level in the region.

The deal is for two years, rather than three, as a hedge against inflation, and reduces the amount of time it takes to climb to the top of the pay scale.

Mike Vieira, president of the Sitka Education Association, didn’t disclose the ratification vote, but he did say that a fair deal usually means that both sides are a bit uncomfortable with the outcome.

Nevertheless, he’s glad that the contract impasse – the first since 1997 – is at an end.

“We look forward to having two years of labor peace with the district and focusing on teaching and learning,” Vieira said.

The two-year contract is unusual. In the recent past the district and the teachers have negotiated three-year contracts, but there was concern among union members about locking in salaries at a level that could be outrun by inflation.

The Sitka Education Association’s lead negotiator, Tim Pike, says concerns over inflation were such that the union entered negotiations with a one-year contract in mind, but some restructuring of the salary schedule eased that worry.

“The two year contract made sense to people,” said Pike. “The second year is just a straight 2-percent raise. But frontloading really does help, and if you amortize it over two years, it does add up to a fairly significant amount of increase. We are taking a bit of a risk on the second year. But we didn’t get hardly any pushback.”

Under the former salary schedule, it took 21 years for a teacher to reach the top of the pay scale. The new schedule takes that down to 20 years, and in addition the bottom rung of the scale – the “zero” year – is eliminated. That means most teachers in the district will get a “double-step” increase in pay next year, with each step worth roughly $1,200. Pike says it amounts to about a 4- to 6-percent increase, depending on where a teacher falls on the pay scale.

That moves Sitka from having around the lowest starting pay for teachers in the region, into second. But Pike cautions that Ketchikan and Juneau are still in negotiations. He says better pay ultimately serves the best interest of students.

“We started the process by saying we had to be competitive, and we had to do what was best for our kids, which is to make sure we have an opportunity to hire the best teachers,” said Pike. “And in order to do that, you have to have a competitive salary schedule. And yes, there’s a little self-serving in that, too. We want more money, but really down the road, we have 22 teachers at the very top corner of that salary schedule, and that means that they’ve been teaching for more than 20 years, and they are all close to retirement. And so how are we going to replace those 22 teachers? They will be cheaper when you replace them, but how do you replace them, if you don’t have a competitive salary schedule with people who have the ability either to get to that level or the experience? We want to be able to pick; we don’t want to just get whoever shows up.”

Pike added that there is a bit of catch-up going on: In each of the last two three-year contracts, teachers accepted one year of no salary increase. That, plus staying ahead of inflation, and becoming competitive within the region were the driving issues behind salary negotiations. Under the new agreement, a first-year teacher with a Bachelors Degree would earn $54,583; a teacher with a Bachelors Degree and a Masters Degree with over 15 years of experience would earn $87,138.

The new contract also allows teachers hired under the state’s Tier III retirement plan to supplement their savings by contributing their unused annual leave.

The Sitka School Board is scheduled to vote on the new contract with teachers, and the new contract with support staff, at its regular meeting on June 1.