NJEA/Christie Head-Butting Match

It’s like a drumbeat: one group after another calling on NJEA’s leadership to authorize one-year salary freezes to its local affiliates. Forgot about Christie’s letter to NJEA Prez Barbara Keshishian. Now joining him on the band wagon is New Jersey School Boards Association (which coupled the request with an addendum that Christie throw back in the “Millionaire’s Tax” to placate NJEA’s objections) and just about every newspaper editorial page in the state. So far nothing but a few nibbles – West Essex, Montclair, a three-month chill in West-Windsor/Plainsboro – and, with final school budgets due next week and many spring breaks starting Monday, that may be it. Lay-offs everywhere, mostly of young, non-tenured employees, big program cuts, new charges for sports and extra-curricula activities, any way to cobble together some cash.

It makes sense that NJEA’s leaders would disdain a one-year salary freeze and counsel its members to refuse to open contracts, despite the logic that it saves jobs (and proof that it does in Essex and Montclair). NJEA can’t deal in increments or shades of gray; with 200,000 members in close to 600 districts, subtleties get lost. It’s all or nothing. The argument that a pay freeze would save some jobs is a non-starter. It’s NJEA logic, though, not New Jersey logic and that presents a strategic problem for them in the form of an unsympathetic public.

Then there’s the requester himself, our ham-handed, loud-mouthed Gov. Christie. He may be well-intentioned (we believe that he is) but he’s no sweet-talker, no diplomat (see Albert Doblin’s Star-Ledger piece today). His take-no-prisoners style may be endearing to some but it’s fuel on the fire to NJEA because they employ pretty much the same style. He’s intent on harnessing discontent towards economy-immune public employees and that strategy demands a no-holds-barred mentality towards opponents. NJEA is intent on harnessing discontent towards rich Republican wretches with the same sort of no-holds-barred mentality. (Here’s the facebook page now 60,000 fans strong called “NJ Teachers United Against Gov. Christie’s Pay Freeze.”)

In this head-butting contest, Gov. Christie is coming out on top, sounding like a defender of tax-poor New Jerseyans who sit numbly and contemplate higher school taxes due to state aid cuts. NJEA leaders, on the other hand, just sound greedy. If they could see their way clear to loosening up the tight grip they maintain on local units, allowing some districts to save jobs through salary freezes, even just reductions, they’d look like heroes. It’s an opportunity to change public perception and they’re missing the boat for fear that a tiny bit of gray will undermine their message. Maybe NJEA’s execs should have a little bit more faith in their membership’s ability to understand ambiguity.

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