Board of Education: Teacher contract battles continue

Teacher contract battles continue
Tuesday, September 5, 2006 Bergen Record

With both sides citing tough economic times, many school districts and local unions statewide continue to battle it out at the bargaining table, fighting over salary increases, health care costs and work schedules -- key issues for teachers and taxpayers.

Nearly 115 districts in the state, including about 20 throughout North Jersey, are negotiating contracts as students head back to class this week. Of New Jersey's 593 school districts, 193 required new pacts this fall, according to school officials.

Local school boards are desperate to keep costs down at the same time union officials push for better incentives to attract new teachers and retain veteran employees.

The average teacher salary increase this year is 4.65 percent, a slight decrease from last year's 4.7 percent, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

However, the raises are still higher than the Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation, which ran 4.1 percent nationally from July 2005 to July 2006. They are lower than the 5.0 percent CPI rate for the New York metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

More than half of new teacher pacts contained controls on swelling health plan spending as premiums for the New Jersey State Health Benefits Program, the largest health insurer in New Jersey school districts, increased 65 percent from 2002 to 2006, according to the NJSBA.

"Insurance prices have been skyrocketing in recent years, so schools have really struggled to try to rein in those costs," said NJSBA spokesman Mike Yaple. "It may be done by placing new teachers in less expensive managed care health plans, increased prescription co-pays, or increasing the number of hours that a part-time employee works before he or she can receive benefits."

'Too expensive'

Haworth Superintendent Joanne Newberry agrees. Her district settled its teachers contract in the spring with a salary increase of 4.8 percent, compared with 4.5 percent a year ago.

"We were not able to offer [the health insurance plan] to all our classroom aides," Newberry said. "We would like to be able to, but it's too expensive."

In North Haledon, where teachers have a tentative agreement that they are expected to vote on today, Business Administrator Virginia Merlino said that the district's small size makes it tough to cut health costs.

"We have approximately 60-70 people in our health benefit package and private insurance carriers are not interested in covering small groups like that," Merlino said. "So we're stuck in the state health benefits plan, where you can't negotiate anything because it's like a package deal and everybody gets the same rates."

In Ringwood, as contract negations go to mediation after stalling over health care contributions and pay increases, teachers are protesting by staying away from school until their first official day today.

Wayne Carroll, chief negotiator for the Ringwood Education Association and a special education teacher at M. J. Ryerson Middle School, said that such a severe measure was not taken easily. But he admitted that there could be more protests when the school year begins.

"That was the only one [action] at this point in time," said Carroll, who would not give details on the points of contention during negotiations. "There will be a progression as time goes on, starting with this coming Tuesday."

Before the previous contract was settled in 2003, negotiations broke down and teachers conducted a job action, where they would only do what their contract requires -- and no more. This meant that they didn't participate in extracurricular activities or remain after school to give students extra help.

Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan blames the strong school unions, which he calls "the most powerful political force in the state of New Jersey," for creating this problem in the first place.

"Not only have the unions driven up salaries and fringe benefits, they've maintained these high-level medical insurance programs fully funded by their employer, which is found absolutely nowhere in the private sector," said Lonegan. He said teacher contracts are "hammering" Bogota's taxpayers, whose average household income is $57,000.

In East Rutherford there is still no agreement on a contract that expired June 30, 2004, in which teachers are demanding salary increases of more than 5 percent. The stalemate has included a fact finder and a mediator.

Longer school days

Still, school board officials are demanding some concessions.

In this year's contracts, 24 percent of them included provisions for longer school days and school years.

"In some cases it may be for teacher training programs, and in some cases it may be for more instructional time," explained Yaple, who said that in the late 1990s, the state instituted new academic standards and requirements for teacher professional development.

Contracts this fall also continue the trend of awarding competitive pay for entry-level teachers, who now earn $41,900, up almost 4 percent from last year.

Yaple said that entry-level salaries may increase at the expense of pay rates at the higher end of the salary scale.

"To be competitive and get the best possible teachers, the starting salary has escalated," said Lyndhurst Superintendent Joseph Abate, whose new teachers contract is still in negotiations.

New Jersey Education Association spokesman Steve Baker said the organization has been on a campaign to establish a minimum $40,000 starting salary.

"It's very important because young people are coming out of school with more education, which is very expensive," said Baker, who said that a few districts have topped the $50,000 mark for starting teachers. "They simply can't afford to [take low starting salaries] because of their debt and various obligations."

Comments (2)

Said this on 12-25-2007 At 11:16 am
It is plain to see that school districts are trying to attract new teachers by raising their starting salary, however what is not evident to most of those "new teachers" is that it comes with many unforeseen cost. The school districts are cutting healthcare cost by providing "single coverage" only, thus the new teacher will have to foot more after-tax money to cover healthcare cost for their children. So what did they really accomplish? I'll tell you what - lower wages due to increased healthcare cost! Furthermore, they are attracting "new teachers" by offering them higher starting salaries, but not retaining those teachers when they are in the system for several years due to lower salaries at the upper-end of service years. What the school district is counting on, is that those new teachers who come in at the higher starting salaries will stay at their job due to complacency.
Paul Brzozowski
Said this on 3-1-2008 At 09:54 am
Why is it that we dont have a county wide school system like they do in the state of Virginia. We are footing the bill for so many administrators that the teachers suffer. However, I wouldlike to know the terms of a teachers contract here in Ringwood. Is it true they can retier before the age of 55. I have never heard of such a thing. What is their helth care coverage? I am sick and tired of paying such high taxes to fund other unions benifits. And what about us who have no children why do we pay the same taxes as those who have 3 children? I will have worked 47 years before I can receive my full pension. I know what I am writing is politically incorrect but in my openion true. Tell us what we are paying for we have a right to know the teachers full contracts. How much does it cost to send a chid to school? How much of that is picked up by the family with the child? How much is picked up by other tax payers? Tell us all this. I belong to 3 unions I am a union man but even unions can hold a town hostage.

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