Knee-Capping NJEA

Here’s NJEA President Barbara Keshishian on yesterday’s Assembly approval of legislation to cap property tax increases at 2%:
This is a devastating day for children and public education in New Jersey. On the heels of more than $1.3 billion in cuts to public education, the Legislature and the governor have put an ill-conceived and shortsighted policy in place that will prevent our public schools from ever climbing out of the hole that has been dug for them by the state.
An understandable reaction, if a bit histrionic. The hole we’re in doesn’t have a lot to do with any sort of property tax cap, but to an expensive, inefficient, and unsustainable public school system.

Anyway, it’s not the cap that’s so scary to NJEA’s leadership. It’s the “toolkit” that’s looming on the horizon. Next in line for the Assembly is the 33-bill Craftsman package meant to accompany the cap. One bill reinstates “last, best offer” when school boards and bargaining units reach an impasse during contract negotiations; another bars annual salary increases of more than 2% for public employees, including schoolteachers (unless the community votes to exceed the cap); another limits sick leave and vacation time carry-over. Two more will have a big impact on the negotiations game: one changes the process for choosing public arbitrators (which right now favors NJEA) and another disallows arbitrators from recommending any settlement over 2%. School board elections would be in November and it’s likely that school budget votes would be eliminated.

Exempt from the cap are health care, pension payments, debt service, and spikes in school enrollment. A special education exemption, heavily lobbied for, didn’t make the cut.

If these bills pass (Gov. Christie vows to have it done before the summer is out, though that seems a wee bit optimistic), we’ll have an entirely new system of union/school board negotiations after years of 5% annual salary increases. Through the NJEA lens, jumps in teacher retirements (since pensions are based on the last 3 years of salary [moving soon to 5] it makes financial sense for eligible teachers to bail out), increased class sizes, and stingy professional development funds will devastate public education in NJ. Through the taxpayer lens it’s just a market correction. Who gets such hefty annual salary increases anymore? Who gets such generous sick leave and vacation time rollovers? Who gets close to a free ride on health benefits and pensions? Who gets such advantages at the bargaining table, if you even get to bargain?

President Keshishian is not so much criticizing policy as much as mourning the likely end to the halcyon days of teacher union dominance. How this all plays out for the kids is yet to be determined.