Classroom Aides Still Not Getting Health Benefits Back

School board members say the restoration of benefits must be part of negotiations with the teachers' union


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.

ira shor January 24, 2012 at 01:46 PM
Good morning all--BOE now agrees that it can restore school aides' health care without reopening the MEA contract?!?! But it still refuses to do so?!? What more evidence do we need that Mrs. Lombard's BOE cannot be trusted to manage a high-quality, transparent school system? BOE and Mrs. Lombard made a bogus claim about NJ law prohibiting restoration of the health care, now pulls back and agrees with MEA it's not so, but still no health care for our abused aides. Lombard's BOE also missed the huge surplus under its nose when it claimed drastic budget cuts were needed last year, starting with cutting aides and their health care. Now, Mrs. Lombard proposes spending money on new HS textbooks when best practice in teaching shows primary sources work best? Visit our schools and see the damage from Lombard's policies: classes too large, aides missing where they are desperately needed, teachers overworked managing classes of 28 students, special students included in regular classes as they should be but without enough staff to make inclusion work. These policies are damaging our children's education, making our family lives harder as parents try to fill the gaps in learning schools should handle, and are injuring our property values which depend on strong schools to attract professional families who will pay premium prices and high taxes for the best schools in a multiracial, civilized town with safe streets, leafy parks, and good municipal services.....respectfully, ira shor
Right of Center January 24, 2012 at 02:55 PM
So someone making $50,000 pays $250 per year for full family coverage. Show of hands. Does ANYONE in the private sector even come close to this?
Stuart Weissman January 24, 2012 at 03:30 PM
Well my family plan is $383 per month for the mid-level plan. $25 copay. $1,500 max out of pocket. The public sector benefit gig is quite the deal. But talk to the unions. They'll claim that their overall compensation package is less than what is common in the private sector. Of course, they conveniently leave out important details, such as the fact that they essentially have free health-care for life and a guaranteed pension.
A. Gideon January 24, 2012 at 04:01 PM
I wasn't able to make this meeting, so I'd appreciate it if someone could provide a detailed explanation for the change in the BOE's position regarding the need to reopen the contract. If it were just the MEA claiming this, then I could presume differing interpretations of a poorly written law or regulation. But if the BOE is now concurring with this new interpretation, something must have changed. What might that be? ...Andrew
Montclair's Own January 24, 2012 at 04:57 PM
Andrew, what changed is that the board of Ed is using the aides' benefits as a negotiating tool and leverage. Essentially, they are going to say "if you want your benefits back, the union will have give up even more just to get them back". This is after they were taken away under the pretense of a huge budget problem when we don't have that problem. So workers who make a paltry salary to begin with now are being deprived further because of a disingenuous, leveraging boe.
A. Gideon January 24, 2012 at 05:17 PM
"Andrew, what changed is that the board of Ed is using the aides' benefits as a negotiating tool and leverage." I don't think so. As a part of compensation, benefits are always a part of a negotiation. I know the "blame the BOE" crowd likes to ignore this, but that doesn't make it less so. Yes, the BOE did seek a M$1.3 cut. But it was the union that opted for the structure of that cut in the face of other choices, including some that would have spread the pain more equitably. Still, this isn't really addressing my question. At a past meeting, it was quite specifically stated that the BOE's lawyer had concluded that the benefits could only be reintroduced as a part of reopening the contract. Either the BOE has chosen to disregard this opinion, or something has changed the attorney's opinion. Either way, I think the details behind the change are newsworthy. ...Andrew
Right of Center January 24, 2012 at 05:20 PM
The BOE has agreed to negotiate for Aides benefits IF the MEA agrees to reopen and thus pay 1.5% for benefits as opposed to 0.5%. So a teacher making $50,000 would go from $250 per year for family coverage to $750 per year or a whopping sum of $62.50 per month! Insuring Aides and their families would cost taxpayers many thousands per year for each employee. $7,000 to $10,000 and in exchange asks for teachers to go up from $20 per month to $62 per month. And it's the heartless BOE being unreasonable here?
Montclair's Own January 24, 2012 at 06:34 PM
You don't see the BOE's demand for re-opening the contracts disingenuous at all? The MEA has re-opened their contracts several times over the past couple of years, giving back upwards of $8 million in doing-so. That is the heartless bunch? No, those being unreasonable are demanding a re-opening, when that doesn't have to legally happen, only as a means to procure even more money from union members contributions. You can go ahead and tell some of them, who make $50,000 that $750 (only to start...that number will grow every year thereafter) is just pennies. But using the private sector as your example is simply apples to oranges. Most educators know when they get into education they will never make above $80-90k a year (after possibly 30+ years of service, mind-you). Those that currently do are either administrators, or teachers who were grandfathered into an old contract system. So newer teachers are being told "You're going to top-out at less of a salary, but now we want you to contribute even more". Part of the reason people get into education is knowing that they will never lead rich, wealthy lifestyles and obtain bonuses, and they are accepting of that....but they sure will be taken care-of health-wise. That is the social contract they enter into, which society is now say "nope, there's a recession...and even though you didn't get huge bonuses when the economy was good and you didn't ask for them, you're the problem."
Montclair's Own January 24, 2012 at 06:36 PM
As far I've seen by watching the issues grow over the past couple of years, what has the Union actually asked for? Have they asked for more money? As far as I can tell, they've asked for their contracts to be honored...which they themselves have even opened up to give back. Have fun getting the best/brightest to enter into your schools to teach with this type of environment. I'm sure your schools and your property taxes will surely go up as a result of the decreasing value being placed on the district's education and those that serve it.
A. Gideon January 24, 2012 at 08:07 PM
"Most educators know when they get into education they will never make above $80-90k a year (after possibly 30+ years of service, mind-you). Those that currently do are either administrators, or teachers who were grandfathered into an old contract system." A certified teacher in 2011-2012 with an MA plus some additional credit crosses the K$90 threshold at about the 15th or 16th year (depending upon the amount of credit, and ignoring additional monies paid beyond basic salary). Even a teacher with merely a BA (and no additional credit) earns over K$85 in the 16th year. Note that I'm not arguing that good teachers shouldn't be well paid. I'm merely providing facts as a counterbalance to fiction. Feel free to grab a copy of the contract at CO, as I did, to confirm these numbers for yourself. ...Andrew
MC January 24, 2012 at 08:17 PM
Patch -- I was not able to attend the meeting last night but I've heard that Dr. Paterson, head of the District's Department of Personal, provided some comment and perspective on the contract-restoration of benefits process. If the article could be amended to include his statement/s, perhaps that would provide some clarity to the questions some have posted here. Or could a separate story that includes an interview with Dr. Paterson and a MEA rep be developed? Your reporting and your ability to directly challenge statements for both "sides" with facts, timelines and previous agreements could help the community greatly. We appreciate reading selected quotes and getting reports on statements given at meetings, but some additional journalism would allow us to understand this complex situation more completely.
Shelley Emling (Editor) January 24, 2012 at 08:46 PM
I will certainly try to reach Dr. Paterson.. we'll see what happens..
dherron January 24, 2012 at 09:17 PM
First Montclair BOE, cut benefits for aides; claimed no money. But wait-Money was found; 5million, no 11 million. Next BOE still could not restore benefits for the aides-claimed the New Jersey State Pension Reform Act (S2937 June 28, 2011)-prohibited such action. At the November 21, 2011 meeting, board president Lombard stated, and board attorney Gutierrez concurred that the “State Pension Reform Act Bill prohibits the district from restoring the medical coverage it eliminated last March-unless the MEA agrees to reopen its labor contract.” On December 5, 2011, I wrote BOE attorney Gutierrez asking where she found such a restriction or prohibition, since I have read the bill, several times, and could find no such prohibited language in the bill. I also asked that she provide her source of reference for the BOE’s claim of being prohibited by law of restoring benefits, or that such action required re-opening of negotiations. Now, the BOE is agreeing with the MEA, that their contract does not have to be re-opened as previously claimed by the BOE and their attorney. I think we are being bamboozled. First it was no money. Not true Then it was restrictions and prohibitions placed by state law. Not true. Now it is other considerations—please, where is the integrity and honesty?
MC January 24, 2012 at 09:26 PM
Thanks. And if an interview request or specific questions are declined by a District leader (e.g., superintendent, heads of personal or instruction), we hope you will let your readers know that, too.
Mara Novak January 24, 2012 at 10:04 PM
dherron--exactly right.
A. Gideon January 24, 2012 at 10:27 PM
dherron: Someone has since explained to me that the MEA proposed a work-around to the legal restriction opined by the BOE's attorney at the meeting last night. Ignoring for the moment the details of the work-around - reclassifying the aides as full time - this does suggest that the MEA found itself in agreement with the BOE's attorney regarding the basic facts of the legal landscape. The difficulties of the work-around, again as it was explained to me, include that this reclassification ignores (1) the salary increase granted to the aides this year to help defer the cost of insurance, and (2) the additional work hours that this would involve, and the question of whether the district actually has work for those hours. Someone that was there may be able to fill in more of the details. Otherwise, I'm stuck awaiting the meeting replay on TV34. ...Andrew
steve jones January 24, 2012 at 11:42 PM
Everyone on that Board should lie awake at night mulling over the blatant screwing over these people got. Unconscionable. And the Union, to the extent it forsake them to protect bigger interests, should do likewise. Just awful. Take the weakest, most politically powerless folks and pull the mat out from under them.
carols January 25, 2012 at 12:08 AM
I was at last night's meeting and I have to say, despite the tone of some of the posts here, the discussion between the BOE and MEA last night was both civil and thoughtful. As the discussion progressed, it was clear there was more to this issue than sound bites. MEA, in stating that their attorney said they could get the benefits restored without opening the contract, did not mention until pressed by the Board, that the contract would have to be opened if the salary increase that was given to the aides last year and hours worked were also on the table. The BOE members were clearly uncomfortable discussing this because of the upcoming negotiations but eventually explained that they felt the return of benefits should be negotiated along with the part time/ full time status and previous salary increase and would be done better as part of the upcoming contract. I encourage readers to take the time to watch this meeting when it is on channel 34. Again, it was a very thoughtful and respectful discussion, even if you agree or disagree with the end result.
allaboutthenumbers123 January 25, 2012 at 12:41 AM
Information requested through OPRA requests indicate that the benefit costs per town employee run approximately $20k if they are married and get family coverage. For single coverage, it looks like these costs approximate $10k.
QBY33 January 26, 2012 at 08:41 PM
"The difficulties of the work-around, again as it was explained to me, include that this reclassification ignores (1) the salary increase granted to the aides this year to help defer the cost of insurance, and (2) the additional work hours that this would involve, and the question of whether the district actually has work for those hours." I wonder...#1. How could approximately $2/hr defer the cost of Health Insurance? and #2. I question where the two hours off their schedule came from? Just two questions that came to mind after reading this. I do have more.....


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