Christie's Big Gamble

Okay, everyone breathe. We’ve all seen the state aid cuts – not the measly 15% of projected aid, but instead a migraine-inducing 5% of total budgets (unless you’re in an urban center) – and the sun still came out this morning. Administrators spent the night crunching numbers and calculating cuts, school board members are bracing for nasty budget hearings, and staff members feel beleaguered and beset by public outrage.

Here’s the bottom line: it is now mathematically impossible for school districts to sustain annual salary increases of 4-5% and fully subsidized health benefits, historically the proud mantle swaddling NJEA’s wide shoulders. Call it a sea change, call it a paradigm shift, call it a zero-sum game, call it (if you’re Barbara Keshishian, NJEA Pres.) a “political vendetta.” The times they have a-changed.

Where does this leave local school boards and NJEA affiliates? So much depends on whether local bargaining units are able to exercise some autonomy and collaborate with school district officials on producing agreements that are fair to teachers and within legislative fiscal constraints. Will locals be able to disentangle themselves from the lockstep of NJEA’s directives? Is there hope that public education in Jersey can have a relatively healthy adjustment to a new fiscal austerity, a shared vision, a new kind of calculus in assessing appropriate compensation?

That’s Gov. Christie’s and Comm. Schundler’s big gamble. If they win, then we’re looking at an overdue marketplace correction that will offer financial stability to public education in NJ. If they lose, then we dive into a game of chicken, each side – school board and local bargaining unit – testing how far the other will go in order to either change or protect the status quo. Much is at stake -- teachers’ jobs, educational integrity, fiscal solvency – and it will take some independent thinking on both sides to ease adjustment to this brave new world.

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