New Jersey School Boards Association yesterday called on Gov. Christie, the state legislature, and NJEA executives to collaboratively freeze salaries so that districts can maintain programs and personnel in the face of deep state aid cuts. The press release also requests that the “millionaire’s tax” be extended for one year, that the proposed pension/health benefits reform package, S-3/A-2460, which requires employee contributions of 1.5% of base pay be enacted immediately, and that school board budget elections be suspended in April.
How likely are local bargaining units to reopen contracts? A tough proposition without support from NJEA chiefs. Head spokesman Steve Baker seemed to send mixed messages, telling the Star-Ledger that "it’s a local choice, but we won’t be encouraging them to do that. They need to make that decision on their own." He added that teachers’ salaries are not “extravagant” and that Gov. Christie is “trying as hard as he can to set up teachers and school employees” as “the villains in this scenario.”
Technically Mr. Baker is correct: it is a “local choice.” However, each local affiliate is represented during contract talks by an NJEA rep, just as local school boards are in most cases represented by a lawyer. The dynamics of negotiations tends to stymie independence so the qualification of “we won’t be encouraging them to do that” is tantamount to an iron-clad edict against moderation.
Teachers are by no means the villains. They are, in fact, victimized by NJEA’s directive. If there are no concessions, there will be more lay-offs, a scenario that is playing out right now in, say, Manalapan-Englishtown (22 jobs) and Bridgewater-Raritan (185 jobs) and Brick (said Superintendent Walter Hrycenko, “I can't even begin to estimate the number of layoffs”). NJEA’s reluctance to engage in negotiations does not protect their members; instead, it subjects them to unemployment. For this teachers pay $700 a year?
Baker’s diametric of teachers vs. taxpayers fuels residents’ resentment at economy-immune teacher compensation and hurts hard-working educators, many of whom are willing to work with local school boards. This sort of my-way-or-the-highway stance is better suited for cowboy movies than educational leadership.