Sheila Oliver: Bring the Bill to the Assembly Floor

Should local schools be responsible for negotiating employee contributions to premiums for health care or should such contributions be legislated? That’s the question before the Senate and Assembly as Speaker Sheila Oliver wonders whether to bring to the floor a bill that would cut school boards and local NJEA units out of the loop.

With all due deference to the 4,800 devoted volunteer school board members who oversee our 591 school districts, any meaningful reform must come from the top down.

Every three years (typically) your local school board sits with its attorney at a table across from members of the district's local bargaining unit, or NJEA local. The union side is represented by a negotiator from an organization called Uniserv whose members are trained by NEA, NJEA’s parent association. (There are more Uniserv political organizers available to NEA locals than the all those employed by both the Republican and Democratic National Committees.) The list of potential proposals from both sides, school board and local union, can be lengthy and, of course, employee contributions to health care premiums are up for discussion.

Districts can make inroads in some areas, but employee contributions and other compensation-related items? Not so much. That’s in large part because we have so many school districts and the dynamics of negotiating are tightly constrained by contracts in neighboring areas. If a district around the corner has a contract that stipulates that employees don’t contribute anything, it’s unlikely that the school board negotiating team will successfully negotiate a contribution. Have to stay competitive, right? And if the school board digs its heels in and impasse is declared, then the State appoints a mediator who makes a recommendation based on comparisons to other surrounding districts. And so it goes.

It’s an endless loop, a sort of tautological dance. Now, that’s not to say that some local boards and unions don’t come to agreement on important issues. They do. But not on third rails like employee benefits contributions.

In fact, until the Legislature mandated last year that employees contribute 1.5% of base pay, most NJEA members didn’t contribute anything. And until the 2% cap on district budgets was enacted, most school boards toed the line on annual salary increases of more than 4%.

Of course NJEA’s front office is lobbying heavily against the Christie/Sweeney legislation. Said President Barbara Keshishian, “This proposal totally circumvents the collective bargaining process, and would cost the average teacher thousands of dollars in take-home pay for diminished pensions and health benefits.”

But the point is that the collective bargaining process precludes meaningful change on financial items, including employee contributions. Without help from the Legislature school boards will continue to be stymied by the ponderous status quo. If indeed it is time for public employees to make higher contributions to health and pension benefits, then it will take an edict from up high, not movement down below.

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