[Editorial] The $179,000 Question

[Editorial] The $179,000 Questionthumbnail
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Published: June 14, 2010 @ 12:00 PM EDT

As part of the continuing analysis of the school budget, the Roselle Park Board of Education (BOE) was asked to provide a copy of the contract the BOE and the Roselle Park Education Association (RPEA) negotiated as the state budget crisis was unfolding. After three weeks of requests for the document to be produced, it was made available. This was after the budget had been defeated and after mayor & council reviewed it and passed a resolution which lowered the budget while, at the same time, re-hired teachers. The curious timing of its arrival notwithstanding which was about two weeks from the signed date of May 5, 2010, after a review of the agreement, it seems as if the BOE actually did no negotiating. Not one (1) significant improvement can be found in the contract for the town or its students. It could be argued that the BOE handed out raises averaging more than 12% over three (3) years in these economic times for just having teachers show up. The structure of the raises were 3.6% for the first year, 3.9% for the second, and 4.2% for the last year of the contract. It should be noted that the raises were not uniformed across the board for all teachers – based on their pay scale, some received more and some received less than the total average.

Could the BOE not get one (1) more minute of instruction for the over $400,000 raise being paid out during the 2010-2011 school year? As a comparison, other contract negotiations in some other cities had raises that were accompanied by an additional 30 minutes of instruction from teachers per day.

All of this was done as the ‘news’ of the state budget problems came to the forefront. Anyone with a TV, radio or computer knew that there were going to be funding issues for schools, but the Roselle Park BOE seemed to have negotiated from a cave and handed out huge raises for what? Even Social Security did not give Cost Of Living Allowance (COLA) increases during this funding cycle. Why? Because there is deflation. Home values in town are down from the 2006 peak. So why did the BOE give out inflationary raises during a deflationary environment?

One possible reason might be found in taking a quick look at the BOE itself. There are nine (9) elected members to represent us, three (3) of whom cannot vote on any financial matters because of conflict of interest due to family members who work for the school district in town. By not voting on the contract, these Board members have deprived citizens our right to representation at the bargaining table.

Another reason could be found in taking a closer look at the layoffs and positions removed. While the teacher layoffs seem to have been done according to seniority, to benefit the most senior teachers, at a glance, the layoffs for para-professionals seems to have been done in a much different way, out of the public eye since those employees who did not have their contracts renewed will not have their terminations made public in this month’s BOE meeting agenda. Even if not protocol, to have residents be made aware of the full impact of the budget cuts should be a concern for the BOE.

Even after the budget was defeated, employees of the school district and their relatives (11 of them), filed a petition for a recount, which resulted in no change of the vote. Although it could be understandable that such concern would be placed on making sure that due diligence was followed with regard to being responsible to the people, that same show of concern appeared to be lacking just two (2) days later when there was a lack of quorum announced from the BOE at 10 a.m. that morning for the publicized joint meeting between council and the BOE on May 13, 2010. Even with no quorum, BOE members could still have attended the meeting as private citizens. This would have helped council to not spend over two (2) hours trying to hammer out some points before passing their resolution because there was no one from the BOE (other than Loren Harms) available to answer questions. Mr. Harms was available but, as a new member to the BOE, he would not have had as much information as Alex Balaban, Michael Genovese, Nancy Kinloch, Barney Leinberger, Jeff Parrell, or Roseann Rinaldi. At one point, there was talk, jokingly, from the audience to drive over to BOE members’ houses to see if they were home since it seemed suspicious that no one showed up for such an important meeting. Kenneth Iachio, the BOE President did show up to the meeting and spoke on the negotiations. Although he did mention to council and Roselle Park residents that he had to fire his own wife, not once in his comments was the word ‘students’ ever used.

If there are less resources, classes, and choices for the students but a 12.16% increase for the RPEA, how can it be said that this contract was about “Supporting our Children”? It seems that it was more about protecting the salaries and retirements of senior teachers or, at its most innocent, maintaining the status quo by continuing to do things the way they have been done in the past without being mindful of the times we live in.

What students at the high school and middle school level are just starting to understand is that the very teachers who stand in front of their classrooms, mainly the senior ones, are responsible for the massive cuts to their school programs and the number of layoffs we have had to endure.

It was the raises in this contract that used up the money for all those positions (translated as peoples’ jobs) and programs that were cut.

It was the BOE’s decision to negotiate and approve the RPEA contract, in spite of the warnings of drastic cuts from decision makers in Trenton, that started the ball rolling down this dangerous slope.  Then, as if to add insult to injury, the senior teachers’ refusal to allow a vote on layoffs vs. raises was the additional culprit here. This is an incredibly important point for people to understand. The contract was a vote to take care of senior people in the system at the expense of students. How? The teachers that were laid off in order to give the senior teachers raises worked to help the students just as much as the senior people who got to keep their jobs. The money that was available for extra programs to enrich student learning, like WISE for reading and math, was cut in order to give out raises.

This is not even discussing the fact that this contract demands taxpayers pay for a Master’s degree for any teacher. Taxpayers will pay up to $90,000 a year for teachers to get their degree. With literally thousands of certified and qualified teachers with Masters degrees out of work, why is the BOE hiring people without those degrees and then having taxpayers pay for that employee’s education?

There are those who would argue nepotism – those teachers that were not born here, did not go to school here, or did not have family members that were on the Board of Education, they do not get hired or re-hired. Whether the insidious implication of arrogant nepotism is true or not, in these very different economic times when families are faced with realistic possibilities of prolonged unemployment or having to do without the basics (which could include losing their home), why would the BOE make decisions that bring into question in whose interest do they serve? The RPEA? Family members? The status quo? Taxpayers? The students?

Some more questions

Since there has been a change in medical insurance providers which saved about $200,000, will people be hired back with this money?

Will another teacher be re-hired since one of the personnel hired back because of council restoration is actually taking on the position of a retiring teacher; thereby still having one position available to fill?

Have there been more retirements than anticipated and, if more retirement papers are submitted by personnel after the budget was submitted, is that extra money going to be used to hire back people who were laid off?

The BOE started to erode any goodwill it had with the residents when it claimed not to be aware of the impending state budget cuts. It lost that goodwill when it did not make any serious attempt to attend the special meeting held on May 13, 2010 where, contrary to threats from the BOE of possible further cuts to personnel and programs if the budget was not passed, a ‘no’ vote resulted in a lower budget and the  replacement of teaching positions. Now what is left is a disconnect between the very volunteers who were voted in to speak for the rest of us and the over 2,000 students that are now left with less and, by default, the thousands of taxpayers who have to pay for it. There needs to be some sort of synergy between the BOE and the students & taxpayers since it is predicted that we will find ourselves in a similar financial situation in 2011. A community will be better prepared, and more willing, to handle whatever crises may occur if they feel all parties are making a sacrifice and they are as informed as possible with relation to what it means for everyone, especially the students.