President’s Message Regarding Negotiations
Day 590 — February 11, 2018
The prolonged struggle for a fair resolution of the contract being negotiated between the Fort Lee Education Association and the Board of Education continues unabated. For almost two years, the Association has attempted to negotiate in good faith but has been stymied at every turn by the Board’s negotiations team who is committed to reducing the quality of healthcare coverage offered by the school district and ensuring that its staff not even move three steps on the existing salary guide in a three year contract.
A fact finder report issued in the last week of October of 2017 made recommendations to settle the contract that the Association was unable to accept. The report was shamefully one sided, recommending salary increases that were far below the county settlement averages. In addition, the mathematical calculations on which the salary recommendations were based, were erroneous. Not surprisingly, the Board accepted the fact finding report. Plain evidence of the unfairness of the report is the fact that despite a ten day gag order on discussing the details of the report publicly, the Board’s attorneys immediately shared the report in another school district they are involved with in order to frighten the Association there from going to fact finding. The message was clear: “Do not count on an objective fact finder report. The Fort Lee Education Association did and they got burned.”
The next step was to move to super conciliation. A super conciliation meeting was set for January 18, 2018. However, the Association was so willing to settle that they agreed to meet with the Board’s negotiations team without any NJEA representation in November, 2017. At this meeting, the Association went as far as accepting all the terms of the fact finding report except for the salary recommendation. The Association clearly articulated that if the Board were willing to increase that amount to a sum that allowed all units (teachers, custodians, paraprofessionals, and secretaries) to move three steps on the existing guide as well as providing for a modest salary increase for those members at the top of the guides in each year of the contract (otherwise they would see no increases at all for the three years of the contract), then the contract would be settled. The Board’s negotiations team made an offer that did not come close to meeting the Association’s request as stated above despite the sum being a truly insignificant amount. In addition, the paltry and insufficient amount that the Board offered was predicated on all new hires made by the school district being forced into a far worse healthcare plan. The plan suggested is worse on all accounts: higher co-payments, higher coinsurance payments, high deductibles, etc. The Association informed the Board that they would never, under any circumstances agree to sell out future members in this manner. Not only would that cause irreparable damage to the Association, it would make the Fort Lee School District unable to attract qualified staff as its benefits would be far poorer than the overwhelming majority of school districts in the state. The meeting ended with no resolution but with assurances that the Board would consider the Association’s offer.
The super conciliation meeting was held as scheduled on January 18, 2018. At this meeting the Association once again repeated its offer: the fact finder report would be adopted if the salary increase recommendation was increased to allow movement by all members in all units to move three steps with a modest salary increase for those members at the top. The Association provided an ambitious number, assuming a counter offer, in order to begin the negotiations process. All indications prior to the meeting by the Board and the Superintendent suggested that the negotiations would focus on salary increases as the rest of the fact finding report was virtually agreed to. Shockingly, instead of a counter offer, the Board’s negotiating team simply walked away from the table. There would be no negotiations. We were floored. Let’s be clear: the Board’s negotiations team walked out of the meeting.
Nonetheless, the Association reached out informally to see if negotiations could resume. I, personally, restated in clear and unambiguous terms what our offer was. Days went by when I was assured that “we are very close.” But, despite being “very close” nothing happened. Thus, at the Board meeting on February 5, 2018, the Association decided that it would press the issue. The membership was invited to attend and let the Board know what it feels like to have your salary frozen for extended periods of time while simultaneously all of your expenses rise including healthcare and pension deductions. The membership reminded the Board of all that they do that goes above and beyond any contractual requirements. The membership reminded the Board of the great success that students in the school district are achieving due to the membership’s hard work. We invited them to settle the contract that very evening.
It is obvious that the Board had no intention of negotiating that evening but we, the Association’s negotiating team, waited anyway. After being shamed by the audience (an audience that included hundreds of Association members-teachers, paras, secretaries, and custodians-but also parents and students), the Board’s negotiating team appeared at my classroom door at 11:00 PM. I was surprised but relieved. Tonight would be the night. However, it became immediately apparent that the Board was not interested in settling the contract. Amazingly, the offer that the Board made was essentially identical to the offer we had already declined in November-a drastic reduction in healthcare coverage for all future employees for a salary increase that still did not allow movement by all members in all units to move three steps on the existing guide with a modest salary increase for those members at the top.
Let me be perfectly clear:
THE BOARD IS YET TO MAKE AN OFFER THAT ALLOWS MOVEMENT BY ALL MEMBERS IN ALL UNITS TO MOVE THREE STEPS WITH A MODEST SALARY INCREASE FOR THOSE MEMBERS AT THE TOP.
THE ADDITIONAL AMOUNT OF MONEY REQUIRED TO DO THIS, BEYOND WHAT THE BOARD ALREADY AGREED TO IN THE FACT FINDER REPORT, IS AMAZINGLY SMALL; IT IS AN AMOUNT THAT WOULD NOT REQUIRE HIGHER TAXES NOR THAT WOULD IN ANY WAY INTERFERE WITH THE BOARD’S ABILITY TO FUND ANY OF ITS CURRENT OR PLANNED EXPENSES.
THE BOARD HAS ALREADY CONFIRMED THAT THEY HAVE THE MONEY AND SIMPLY DO NOT WANT TO SPEND IT ON ITS STAFF.