At a school board meeting Monday night, Gayl Shepard, the head of the Montclair Education Association, said there was no reason why health benefits shouldn't be restored to the district's classroom aides.
She insisted that previous assertions by school board members and their attorney that the district's labor contract with the MEA had to be re-opened before benefits could be restored simply wasn't true.
After speaking with various Montclair Public Schools sources, Montclair Patch has determined that the MEA has proposed a way to get around the legal restriction presented by the board's attorney.
The MEA has asked that the aides be reclassified as full-time employees so that their benefits might be immediately restored.
But school board officials said that this change in status would indeed have to be part of labor negotiations. Not only would the additional work hours required to make aides full-time employees have to be considered, but the salary increases already granted to the aides this year to help offset the loss of insurance would have to be part of new negotiations.
At Monday night's school board meeting, school board members clearly looked uncomfortable as they told Shepard that the restoration of benefits would absolutely have to be part of 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.
School board officials reiterated that when aides lost their benefits last year, they also were given a raise. Granted, it wasn't enough to completely offset the loss of health benefits, but it was a raise nonetheless.
So, in short, benefits can't be restored without addressing this raise, and that requires a re-opening of the labor contract.
If the school board does what the MEA wants, then aides get to keep their raise and also get to work two additional hours a week, which would make them full-time employees.
And there's no guarantee that the new labor contract will even be re-negotiated any time soon even though it's due to expire in June 2012.
One of the main points of contention among MEA members is the $5.7 million surplus announced at the end of 2011.
But School Board President Shelly Lombard said that only about $800,000 of that money can be spent this spring while the rest will have to be applied towards tax relief in the 2012/2013 year.
She said at least some of that $800,000 would most likely be spent on new textbooks.
In addition, principals at all schools would be asked about their own schools' immediate needs.
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.
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