Keep The Heat On

As Gov. Christie continues to position the NJEA leadership in the role as Chief Obstructionist to creating an affordable and accountable NJ public school system, the typically obsequious New Jersey School Board Association is finding its inner lion. This past Friday the Senate State Government Committee added an amendment at NJSBA’s request to the pension/benefit reform package currently making its way through the Legislature. The original Bill 3 mandated that all school employees who use the state School Employee Health Benefits Program have to contribute 1.5% of their base salary. NJSBA’s amendment requires the 1.5% contribution regardless of whether the local school district uses the State’s program or a private one.

Kudos all around to NJSBA and the Senate Committee. Only 47% of school districts use the State insurance plan, which leaves 53% of districts picking up the whole tab. (Close to 90% of local districts pay the full load for employee benefits.)

We’re less enthusiastic about NJSBA’s push to eliminate school budget votes this April for districts that come in under the 4% cap. Gov. Christie and Ed Commish-to-be Schundler should be also.

NJSBA argues that school districts are under enormous pressure as they develop 2010-2011 budgets because of the uncertainty surrounding State aid. Surpluses, typically used to buy down property tax increases, have been seized by the state. No one knows how low state aid will go next year; a 15% cut is being bandied about, but it’s anyone’s guess until Gov. Christie comes up with firm numbers in mid-March – 5 weeks before the vote on April 20th. NJSBA’s Mike Vrancik calls this “an extremely volatile atmosphere” that demands a legislative act to mitigate the stress and uncertainty.

While we can certainly sympathize with school boards struggling manfully with daunting fiscal scenarios, this well-intentioned rescue attempt advocated by NJSBA would be a strategic error for three reasons:

1) The leadership of NJEA is in a tight corner; while it’s been able to bank on the kindness of public sentiment, there’s been rising ire in response to lack of accountability and annual pay increases of 4%-5% that seem vacuum-sealed from a sour economy and salary and benefits trends in the private sector. NJEA’s leadership is on the defensive right now (here’s their latest salvo entitled “NJEA Fires Back”) and Christie needs to maintain the half-nelson.

2) If the State gives districts a bye on school budget elections under the 4% cap (which Christie has likened to a “swiss cheese cap” because it’s so full of holes) then there’s no pressure on local districts to push hard for lower salary increases or contributions to health benefits. It’s no coincidence that annual pay hikes hover around the same level as our perforated budget cap. If there’s no budget vote then there’s no public pressure on school boards to bargain for lower salaries during negotiations of reopen current contracts. (Unlikely, though a savvy reader forwards to us an article from Stowe, Vermont where teachers sacrificed a 5.25% salary increase this year.) A big part of reinventing NJ’s public schools into an economically and educationally sustainable enterprise depends on public pressure and awareness. Budget votes promote public pressure and awareness.

3) A large part of Christie and Schundler’s education reform agenda squares precisely with the federal Race To The Top competition. If school districts can handle unprecedented fiscal pressure and the NJEA execs’ resistance can be tamped down, then we have a better shot at implementing meaningful reform, like increased school choice, teacher accountability, and improved data systems, which will in turn increase our chances at winning some money during the second round of RTT applications.

Here’s a compromise: Make the cap a hard 3%. Allow school districts to bypass a budget vote if they come in under the newly-stringent cap. Such a move would force districts to play hard ball with NJEA affiliates, create a fiscal scenario that demands logical salary increases and benefits contributions, and sets us up for a fighting chance at stimulus funds.

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