The Soft Shoe of School Board/Union Negotiations

The Asbury Park Press slams the Marlboro Board of Education for taking a hard line with the local teachers union during contract negotiations and then, apparently, folding after two years of an escalating impasse. If only it were that simple.

Here’s how it works in N.J.: as the end of a typically-three-year contract approaches, a school board, represented by an attorney, and the local NJEA chapter, represented by NJEA reps, exchange proposals and proceed with negotiating everything from minor changes in contract language to salary increases and contributions (or not) to health benefits. If the two sides reach an impasse (usually once they hit salary and benefits, but sometimes over a seemingly insurmountable semantic technicality), they call in a state-appointed mediator who proposes a compromise. If one or both sides reject the compromise, they go to a state-appointed fact-finder who recommends a settlement. (Here's Marlboro's fact-finder's report.) If that doesn’t work, they go to someone called a super conciliator, who writes up a lengthy resolution to the impasse. None of these interventions are binding.

Once upon a time in N.J. (as is still the case in many other states) school boards could exercise a “last, best offer” to avoid strikes after exhausting mediation remedies. According to a report from the Public Employment Relations Commission, this happened 11 times between 1977-2003, or once every 3 years. Not too shabby, given our 600 or so school districts. However, in 2003 the NJ Legislature in its wisdom passed the "School Employees Contract Resolution and Equity Act," a bill heavily backed by NJEA, that took the option of “last, best offer” off the table. This legislator-as-lapdog dynamic leads to predicaments like in Marlboro, where negotiations drag on for years, frustrating whole communities not to mention schoolchildren and teachers. In Marlboro, the school board took the unusual step of publicly explaining its proposals, which included a $950 annual contribution toward health care benefits and a 13% salary hike over three years. The union’s position was a 15% salary increase over three years and no employee contribution towards healthcare. At its most fierce moment, the school board solicited substitute teachers in anticipation of a strike.

In a letter posted on the district’s website, the Marlboro board president tried to explain why the final settlement – a five-year contract with annual salary increases between 4.1-4.5% and an agreement from the union to switch to a cheaper health plan without any employee contributions– is a good deal. (In some ways, he’s right: the NJ Principals and Supervisors Association reports that as of this past August the average salary increase in 2009-10 contracts was 4.47 percent.) He notes parenthetically,
The large presence of NJEA representatives at the bargaining table [is] something I have never seen during by 20 year tenure.
The negotiations in Marlboro were watched attentively by other NJ school boards: if members take a hard line towards a local chapter of NJEA – working the press, publishing points of contention, lining up substitutes in anticipation of a strike – can boards prevail in winning concessions? Marlboro tells us “no.” In many ways the whole union/local board negotiation process in N.J. is a Kabuki dance, a set piece with predetermined posturing and pirouettes. How rational is a settlement over 4% when school district budgets are capped at 4% (possibly 3%, if rumors circulating Trenton are credible)?

So, how can we make this stylized process meaningful?

1) Restore “last, best offer” as a tool for resolving contractual disputes.
2) Conduct negotiations on a county-wide or regional basis to level the playing field.
3) Mandate public employee health-care contributions.

Is the Legislature serious about lowering property taxes for NJ taxpayers? Marlboro’s saga tells us that local volunteer school boards can’t control school costs without a little help from our lawmakers.

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