Comparing two Alaska contracts, urban and rural.

This posting compares and contrasts interesting provisions within the most recent contracts between two Alaska school districts and their respective local unions. I place these analyses within the context of Alaska’s scope of bargaining statute, and within the larger context of Alaska’s unusual K – 12 student demographics. In an effort to explore how differences between urban and rural education in Alaska are reflected in the content of local contracts, I examine the Anchorage School District’s 2010-2013 contract with the Anchorage Education Association, and the North Slope Borough School District’s 2009-2012 contract with the North Slope Borough Education Association. I argue that each district’s unique setting is reflected in the language of their contracts, and that on the North Slope, steps should be taken to align local union responsibilities with the District’s current educational reform initiative. I premise the discussion by providing a brief synopsis of the state’s scope of bargaining, as defined by statute, before introducing the Anchorage School District (ASD) and the North Slope Borough School District (NSBSD). I provide an overview of these districts and then discuss salient differences in their respective provisions.

Alaska’s Scope of Bargaining

Alaska’s scope of bargaining statue permits collective bargaining between school districts and representative bargaining organizations, and striking by labor organizations representing employees of a municipal school district. Negotiations are limited to wages, hours of work, compensation, fringe benefits, and personnel policies. Recognition and grievance procedures, extra-curricula activities and duties, professional development, life, health and liability insurance, automobile allowances and reimbursements for physical examinations are also mandatory subjects of bargaining. The document cites Alaska Supreme Court precedent[1] as bases for the narrowing of scope to the economic interests of employees and attendant aversion to issues that deal with professional goals and methods. Although “professional goals and methods” are not defined, the following subjects are non-negotiable: relief from non-instructional chores, class size, teacher load and preparation time, evaluation of administrators, numbers of teacher aides, para-professionals, and specialists, and the school calendar.

Contextualizing the ASD and NSBSD

There are remarkable demographic and geographic differences between the ASD and NSBSD. In 2010, nearly 300,000 people were living in Anchorage, the most populous and ethnically diverse city in Alaska (U.S. Census, 2010). As of the 2010-2011 school year 49,206 K-12 students were enrolled in the ASD’s 97 schools, 53% of who are of color (Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, 2010). That year, 72% of Anchorage high school students graduated.

By contrast, the NSBSD encompasses 11 schools in eight Iñupiat (Inuit) communities above the Arctic Circle, spanning an area larger than the state of Minnesota. As of 2010, 9,430 people were living in the region, and 80% of the District’s 1,605 students were Iñupiat. The high school graduation rate for NSBSD students is about 59% overall and 54% for Iñupiat. In keeping with the District’s mandate to provide culturally and locally responsive education, the District began unrolling a school reform initiative in 2006 that places the learning priorities of the dominant Iñupiat population at the center of the education system (Siku News, September 10, 2010). As illustrated in the following section, language alluding to this initiative is curiously absent from the NSBSD’s contract with the North Slope Borough Education Association (NSBEA).

Comparing ASD and NSBSD Contracts

The ASD and NSBSD contracts appear to stay within the narrow parameters outlined by statute, with the main differences being that the ASD-AEA contract is much more specific while the NSBSD-NSBEA contract leaves sections such as “Reduction in Force” and parent-teacher conference requirements extremely vague.  It is questionable whether certain supports available to Anchorage teachers, and provisions concerning teacher-parent-student relations on the North Slope may fall within the excluded “general policies describing the function and purpose of a public employer.” The ASD’s contract with the AEA supports “experimentation to improve student performance,” and encourages teacher innovation, recognizing the benefits of classroom visits and innovative site-based activities. This implies that teachers have a certain degree of latitude when it comes to developing curricula and crafting pedagogical practices. The ASD-AEA contract also provides for the development of mentoring and Instructional Coach programs in order to “strengthen educator recruitment, retention, and student achievement.”

In contrast to ASD language about school-level improvisation, the NSBSD-NSBEA contract tends to concentrate power and decision-making at the district level. Teacher innovation and experimentation are not stressed, and comparable teacher mentorship opportunities do not exist. If teacher mentorship opportunities are designed to increase teacher retention, it is important to note that teacher turnover is more than twice as high in rural Alaska school districts than in the state’s five urban districts.  The NSBSD-NSBEA contract gives teachers the freedom and responsibility to plan, develop, and implement teaching techniques and methodologies in keeping with prescribed curriculum guides. A superintendent-appointed Curriculum Development Committee exists within the NSBSD, and the NSBEA is entitled to representation on that committee. As the district works to implement the Iñupiaq Learning Framework at the center of its reform initiative, it is likely that greater centralization of curricula and pedagogy will be necessary due to the local knowledge limitations inherent in an overwhelmingly non-Native and non-Alaskan teaching force.

On a related note, it is startling that the NSBSD-NSBEA says nothing about the educational goals of the majority Iñupiat population, as outlined in the Iñupiat Learning Framework. I know from work experience that the Framework asks teachers to occupy significantly different roles than they have in the past, as facilitators of self-determination rather than colonization. The contract does not allude to the challenges universally endemic of an education system that has been imposed upon a population as a colonizing device, nor does it mention the words “Iñupiat,” “Indigenous,” or “Alaska Native” at all. In fact, the only sign that teachers will be occupying different geographical and cultural space is the contract’s “Village Cost Differential Payment,” which is meant to compensate for the region’s exorbitantly high cost of living. Perhaps similarly, teachers are eligible for “Family Communications” performance pay of up to $1000 for classroom and face-to-face communications with parents/family in the presence of students. It is unclear whether this is a trust-building measure or a substitute for parent-teacher conferences.

Conclusion

The ASD-AEA and NSBSD-NSBEA contracts differ substantially yet both appear consistent with Alaska’s scope of bargaining statute. ASD-AEA generally gives schools and teachers more discretion in decision-making, and perhaps this helps explain why contract language was much more detailed and specific in contrast to NSBSD-NSBEA, which tended to leave issues relatively vague. This is probably due to the relatively small size of the NSBSD, or it may betray an aversion to concentrating power and decision-making in the hands of teachers who are much more likely than Anchorage teachers to leave the district after a short time. School districts such as the ASD are privileged when it comes to teacher mentorship and support – services that are at least contractually absent from the NSBSD, ostensibly due to high teacher turnover – and this is one symptom of inequity between urban and rural districts. My most salient finding, however, was the seeming inconsistency between the stated educational goals of the region’s majority Indigenous population as outlined in the Iñupiaq Learning Framework, and contract language that does not speak to the problematic role non-Indigenous teachers often find themselves in as outsiders with little guidance, imposing their values in classrooms.

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Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. (2010). “Enrollment by District, Ethnicity and Grade as of Oct. 1, 2010,” accessed February 29, 2012, http://www.eed.state.ak.us/stats/.

Siku News. (September 10, 2010). “New Inupiaq framework says it all”, accessed February 29, 2012, http://www.sikunews.com/News/Alaska/New-Inupiaq-framework-says-it-all-8095.

U.S. Census (2010). “QuickFacts”, accessed February 29, 2012, http://quickfacts.census.


[1] Alaska Public Employees Ass’n v. Alaska State Employees Ass’n (1992) and Kai Sch. District v. Kenai Educ. Ass’n (1977).

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