About 75 teachers from the Mahwah Education Association confronted members Wednesday night, asking why what seemed like progress in contract negotiations has yet to produce an agreement between the district’s administration and its teachers union. Teachers in the district have been working under an expired contract since June of 2010.
According to representatives from the MEA and the board, there are only a few sticking points of negotiations left to agree on before a new contract can be reached. The main dispute is over meeting time, or “how we use the time that is not spent with the children,” Regina Guth, Second Vice President of the MEA and teacher. “That’s a negotiable item and we are currently at odds.”
School Board President Tricia Shada said the crux of the disagreement is over the ability to schedule after school meetings. “The teachers are already in school for four meetings a month, so we are not asking for any more time,” Shada said. “Currently, administrators are only able to set the agenda at two of the four monthly meetings, and we would like to be able to schedule all of them.” Shada said administration used to dictate what happened at all four meetings, but part of the contract agreement reached in 2009 cut that to two of the monthly meetings. “We would like to change that back,” she said.
Literature circulated by the MEA Wednesday night said teachers use the non-scheduled time to grade student work, communicate with parents and prep for classes. Members of the MEA do not want to “lose this precious time for unnecessary reasons.”
According to Board Vice President Chuck Saldarini, another area of contention is the district’s annual ‘Back to School’ night schedule. “Back to school nights are currently half days for students and staff, we would like to make them full days,” he said. According to Shada, that request is in response to parent complaints. “All of the buildings have their ‘Back to School Nights’ on different days, so parents with more than one child were finding it difficult to schedule for the scattered half days.” The change to a full day would mean extra time teachers would be spending in school.
Another area of dispute “is of course always going to be compensation,” Saldarini said. According to figures he presented during a contract negotiations update at Wednesday’s board meeting, the district is offering teachers seven-percent raises over a proposed three-year contract. The seven percent would be allocated to the MEA in its entirety, and then divvied up between teachers differently depending on their individual agreements. Saldarini said the raise rates being proposed by the district are “mostly” higher than the county averages:
Proposed Mahwah Raises (%age)
Bergen County Average Raises (%age)
The raises, he said, “are not only reflective of how good [our teachers] are, and they are good, but the extra time teachers would spend in the building on the ‘Back to School’ Night.”
The MEA literature said recent agreements made with the board about job evaluations and post-Master’s degree coursework has given teachers “fewer opportunities for salary advancement.” The teachers say they agreed to those changes “in good faith.”
Union members also brought up Wednesday recent changes in New Jersey legislation that requires teachers to pay a much larger percentage of their health care contributions. The rate hikes, which will be phased in over the next four years, could have teachers contributing as much as 35 percent of their health care costs. Contribution rates are based on salary and health care plan.
“We recognize that this is going to be a significant increase for our teachers,” Ed Deptula, the district’s business administrator, said.
Health care contributions were one of the main points of contention when negotiations between the two sides began in 2010. When the MEA filed for an impasse in negotiations in March of 2010, the reason cited was health care. However, since that time, it has been taken off the table as a bargaining measure thanks to the new state law.
Since filing for impasse, Mahwah’s teachers and board of education entered a mediated negotiation process with state officials from the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC). Saldarini called the mediated process “incredible arduous and incredibly slow. And, on top of that, the results are completely non-binding.” The two sides are currently in the second of three phases of the impasse negotiation process.
In December of last year, both the board and the MEA when the two sides met on their own, for non-impasse mediated talks. During an impasse, negotiations can still be reached using traditional face-to-face meetings if the two sides so choose.
However, according to accounts Wednesday night, progress seemed to unravel at a January 18 face-to-face session. According to the board, a “salary guru” from the New Jersey Education Association, who assists in negotiating teacher salaries for the MEA, was supposed to be in touch with the board after the January meeting to “crunch the numbers. That call never came,” Saldarini said. “But, in a proactive measure, we reached out to [the NJEA].”
The teachers say the board seemed unwilling to compromise at the January meeting. “That meeting started off on a bad note when we were told that two of the board members needed to catch flights early the next morning, as if our time there wasn’t as important,” Guth told the board Wednesday. “When we go into a negotiation session, we are ready to hunker down and to reach an agreement that night, no matter how long it takes.”
The meeting lasted from about 7 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. without resolution. According to Guth, “that was one of the few times I’ve seen that the board members got up and left the building without deciding on what the next meeting time would be.”
Deptula said the board was waiting for the phone call from the NJEA rep to set the next meeting time.
Representatives from both sides at the meeting Wednesday seemed eager to settle. “We feel that every step of the way, and still now, we want to get this done,” MEA member and Ridge teacher Troy McGilchrist said.
Shada responded by asking for the MEA’s negotiation committee to set up another face-to-face meeting with the board’s committee. She said waiting for the next state-mediated meeting, which is not scheduled to happen until May 2 due to the availability of the state representatives, was “not necessary. And, we get a lot more done without [the mediators].”
The two groups said at the close of the meeting they would settle on a date to meet again by Friday.
One parent of a Mahwah High School student at the meeting asked how the ongoing back-and-forth between the district’s teachers and administration, which played out in front of him at the meeting, is affecting his child. “I’ve heard that teachers are making comments to students that due to contract disputes, they will not be writing college recommendation letters for high school students,” the parent said. “Are the teachers allowed to talk that way to the students?”
Interim Superintendent Dr. Karen Lake said she “had heard those rumors too,” and addressed them with the MEA. “We were told letters of recommendation would continue.” Administrators said they would follow up with teachers again on the issue.
Responding to another parent concern circulating around the district, MEA literature said teachers are still offering students extra help, but only within the contractual day. “Once the contract is settled, flexibility can again be exercised,” it said.