Nearly 200 members of the Mahwah Education Association teachers union gathered at Wednesday night’s meeting wearing red shirts and pins, holding signs and addressing the Board about an ongoing contract negotiation process that has been at an impasse since March of 2010.
According to an update from Board member Chuck Saldarini, the board and union postponed a mediated fact-finding session that was scheduled for Thursday, “in favor of a face-to-face meeting.” The in-person meeting, which will be the first between teachers and the board since the MEA declared an impasse last year, will happen Thursday night.
Both members of the board and of the MEA expressed a desire to settle the ongoing debate. “We want a contract,” Board President Tricia Shada said. “We have repeatedly been asking for face-to-face meetings, and I am optimistic going into [Thursday] night.”
“We are of the same mindset; we want to see it done” MEA President Laura Beattie said. “The last thing our community and our Board of Education would want is the staff to be distracted by an unsettled contract.”
MEA member and teacher Bill Howe said an internal MEA survey indicated that teachers are normally “dedicated to going above and beyond what is contractually obligated and volunteering time outside of class to our students, which we want to do.” However, as a “job action” teachers have been taking for the past three weeks, Howe said teachers are only working the number of hours required in their current contract, which expired in June of 2010.
As a side effect of the job action, teachers have eliminated offering extra-help to students before and after school, and during lunch. “If we need to write a letter for a student, and can’t get it done during the school day, we can’t do it,” Howe said.
The job action has also affected planning, he said. “Not having additional time to prepare outside of our contractual obligations is killer for us. It leaves us scrambling to be efficient, because we want to go in there and be the best we can be,” Howe said. “It burns you out.”
Teachers have also been picketing outside school buildings for the 15 minutes before school once a week, “as a way to create awareness,” Beattie said. “Job action is not illegal, we are working to the terms in our contract.”
The contract dispute began mainly over employee contributions to healthcare and pension costs, however since then, the state has mandated that employee health care costs are a function of employees’ salaries and individual health care plans. “This somewhat mitigates the issue since we have to do what the state says,” Saldarini said at a .
Issues left on the table to negotiate include compensation and hours worked. “It comes down to time and money,” Shada said.
Teachers argued Wednesday night that the board needs to show a greater appreciation for its staff. “We are looking at a long road ahead if [the Board of Education] does not appreciate and acknowledge your highly qualified staff by offering a realistic and fair settlement,” Beattie said. Other members of the MEA read letters to the board, many citing notes from parents and students thanking them for their work. They asked the board to do the same.
“We are their biggest advocates,” Board member Suzanne Curry said of the district’s teachers. “We acknowledge how great our teachers are all the time. It is a great district, that’s why we’re on the board.” Curry said she was “bothered” by several MEA members saying during the meeting that the board has not acknowledged their contributions to Mahwah schools.
With both sides going into Thursday night’s negotiation session with an optimistic attitude, Shada said implementing a new agreement, if one is reached, would be a long process, with the new contracts not being in place until “possibly the end of January, I would hope.” She said if a tentative deal were reached Thursday, it would need to be ratified by the membership of the MEA, and shown to the Board of Ed. “At that point, it would just be a matter of hammering out the details, but I think everybody would be happy if we could get an agreement [Thursday].”
Shada closed Wednesday night’s meeting by telling the crowded audience that she feels an end is near in the nearly two-year process. “I hope you all have a very happy holiday, that comes with a contract under the tree,” she said.