It's a question that comes up at every school board meeting—and Monday night's meeting was no exception. Gayl Shepard, the head of the Montclair Education Association, asked point blank if health benefits were ever going to be restored to the district's classroom aides.
School board members clearly looked uncomfortable, noting that restoration of benefits would be part of their labor negotiations with the MEA, which represents nearly 1,100 teachers, aides, and school staff.
Those negotiations, they said, could begin as early as February.
But Shepard pressed the issue, saying that health benefits could indeed be restored before negotiations begin.
"At the Nov. 21 board meeting you guys said your hands were tied and that you couldn't return benefits without re-opening the contract you have with us," she said.
Shepard added emphatically that they've since discovered that this is not actually the case.
Classroom aides have been a familiar presence at school board meetings since last spring, when spending cuts resulted in most classroom aides losing their health insurance as part of a move to save the district $1.3 million.
After November's announcement of a surprise $5.7 million surplus—leftover from the 2010/2011 operating budget—many aides thought they'd be getting their health benefits back.
But in November school board members explained that they could only restore health benefits to aides if the district's current contract with the MEA—due to expire on June 30, 2012—was re-opened.
They said that the contract would have to be re-opened because that is what is required by a New Jersey state law.
And, if that happened, then all MEA members would have to start contributing at least 1.5 percent of their salaries to health insurance—as is required of all public employees by a state law.
Currently teachers and other MEA members contribute .5 percent, they said.
However, Shepard said that the law was interpreted incorrectly and that, according to the New Jersey Education Association, the contract actually does not have to be re-opened in order for benefits to be restored.
School board members agreed that the contract does not have to be re-opened but they also insisted that there were various other factors to consider.
School board member Leslie Larson said that restoration of benefits should be part of the board's discussions with the MEA about a new three-year contract.
Members said it's also not as simple as changing aides from part-time to full-time status. And another factor is the salary increases of up to 10 percent the board agreed to give aides to help offset the cost of obtaining their own health insurance.
Another board member Tanya Coke agreed that—because of changes in pay scales—the issue cannot be tackled outside the context of negotiations.
From what most board members said, the restoration of health benefits would indeed be the first topic of conversation when negotiations do get underway.
Shepard then asked what the school board did plan to do with the surplus money if it didn't plan to restore health benefits.
School Board President Shelly Lombard said it's difficult to spend the surplus money on the hiring of staff since salaries are recurring expenses that the district might not always be able to cover year after year.
However, she agreed that more guidance counselors are needed—as well as newer textbooks—at the high school.
"We will be talking to principals at the schools to see what we might be able to purchase with the money," Lombard said.
The district's contract with the MEA has to be renegotiated anyway by the end of June 2012 and, at that point, the MEA members will be required to make greater contributions to their healthcare costs.
For background on the surplus go here.
For more stories from Monday night's school board meeting, check Montclair Patch on Tuesday morning.