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Hundreds Pack School Board Meeting As Mediation Looms

Teachers and other members of the Montclair Education Association will not volunteer any additional time past their paid hours, including before and after school and during weekends, until they reach agreement on a new contract.

More than 250 Montclair teachers and other staffers packed into a tense and often raucous Board of Education meeting Monday night, as union officials said teachers would not perform any duties beyond the letter of their contract until a new deal is reached with the district.

Board President Robin Kulwin said a mediator would likely enter in the negotiations, which would "expedite a settlement."

"Despite best efforts," Kulwin said, "the parties were growing further apart in their settlement demands, not closer together. It became clear, we needed the assistance of a mediator."

The union members packed the standing-room-only room with blue and red shirts and buttons supporting the MEA. Many cheered as parents and residents lined up to support the union during the public comment portion of the meeting.

"I don’t think this board is doing its job in standing up for the community," said Thomas Reynolds, president of Montclair NAACP, in a show of union support.

"Our children are worth every dime," said Ira Shor, a parent. "If we [teach our children] on the cheap, we are cheating our children of the future."

Board member Tonya Coke said costs must be balance the needs of the schools in a community where 70 percent of homes do not have children in the schools.

"We also have an obligation to other members of the community," Coke said. "I think it’s something to keep in mind. We have an obligation to ensure we are ... asking of the entire community what is fair."

Students also got behind the microphone to support the union.

"I support the teachers in this process because the teachers support us in our endeavors," said Elena Tsemberis, a junior at Montclair High School. "If the teachers are not taken care of, the students won't be either."

MEA President Gayl Shepard said teachers and other members of the union would not volunteer any additional work with students past their paid hours.

Shepard criticized the board, saying it has allowed surpluses to grow while cuts, pay freezes and layoffs have been borne by the union.

Board member Deborah Wilson said the board’s negotiation committee received an offer from the union that included salary increases of 3 percent for the 2012-13 school year, 2.9 percent in 2013-14, and 2.8 percent in 2014-15. These increases, said Wilson, were “well in excess of the state and county averages.”

Other MEA requests included: 

  • Reinstatement of health benefits for those paraprofessionals that lost them
  • Cost savings measures to avert outsourcing
  • The enhancement of educational services with flexible scheduling
  • Five teaching classes for all high school teachers
  • Class sizes for most teachers limited to 24 students, and a stipend for teachers with class sizes that exceed that

The board, Wilson said, requested the union offer cost savings of $1 million over the next two years in the union’s health benefits and insurance coverage through increased co-payments, among other things.

The district is unable to bear the demands of the MEA, said Wilson, “and doing so would be fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable to Montclair’s taxpayers." 

The board filed an inpasse in negotiations last week and is calling for a state mediator to decide the contract, said board attorney Mark Tabakin. The Public Employment Relations Commission will decide if a mediator is needed, but Tabakin said he “anticipates the commission will find an impasse exists.”

A mediator can be assigned by the state commission or chosen by the board and union collaboratively. The mediation process could take up to six months to begin if the board and union go though the state commission, added Tabakin.

Sephorah February 26, 2013 at 07:51 PM
You took most of the words right out of my mouth ira shor! This is what I just said to a co-worker and fellow Montclairian! One of the main things that brings families to Montclair is the school system! I have lived in Mtc all of my life. I moved to Bloomfield for 2 yrs and was dying to get my daughter back to the Mtc schools! I understand that I am going to have to pay for the education my children get in Mtc and I make that sacrifice. I don't want to read about increases being higher than the average! That what it's supposed to be! That's why we pay housing costs in Mtc that are higher than the average! Because we know that our children's education will be above average! Now I am extremely upset that I have already gotten a call informing me that one of my daughters afterschool programs will not be meeting. Indefinitely! Stop the nonsense and give our teachers what they deserve! As for this... "Board member Tonya Coke said costs must be balance the needs of the schools in a community where 70 percent of homes do not have children in the schools. "We also have an obligation to other members of the community," Coke said. "I think it’s something to keep in mind. We have an obligation to ensure we are ... asking of the entire community what is fair."' As far as the residents who dont have children in the schools, they knew when they bought their homes that a portion of their taxes would be used for the schools. That shouldn't even be an issue in these discussions.
mtc parent February 26, 2013 at 08:36 PM
People do move here for the schools--and many of them move away again once their kids graduate because they cannot or will not keep paying property taxes that have skyrocketed. At some point the value proposition (high taxes vs. private-school tuition) changes. Also, good schools (or the perception thereof) keep our property values high. Whether or not you agree with their methodology, in the NJ Monthly magazine state rankings, Montclair High School has fallen from #85 in 2008, to #94 in 2010, to #99 in 2012. It is interesting that Columbia High School in Maplewood--a community many compare to Montclair--rose from #75 in 2010 to #47 in 2012. A lot of people use those rankings when deciding where to move for public schools. Rising taxes and falling rankings--it's an uncomfortable situation.
Dan February 26, 2013 at 08:40 PM
And what do they "deserve" Sephorah? Wage increases in excess of the rest of the people who pay them? Are they performing miracles in our schools? I think not. Let's compare some of the same sized/per capita income towns to MTCs ranking of 219 in 2012. Westfield #60, Maplewood #183, Livingston #58 and Ridgewood #19. What am I missing. We pay higher than average taxes because of a mismanaged town government for 30 years and insane borrowing. The pension system and the amount the educators pay into the system needs to be remedied. The flawed logic that since we have a surplus we should spend it is irresponsible. This town should first and foremost pay down its debt. That burden will bury us all. If you can provide some numbers and facts as to how a Montclair Education is above average, I'm listening. Again, I support the teachers efforts but not at my continued expense. And if they are salaried, why are we counting hours worked? Work until the job is done.
esther February 26, 2013 at 10:25 PM
Does anyone know that the teachers opened their contract and gave back raises three years in a row- does anyone in Montclair do something for nothing? Teachers are worth it- there is a direct correlation between property values and the quality of the schools which is something Montclair enjoys. Gimme a break- name someone who works for nothing. But it's expected of your teachers? Really?
esther February 26, 2013 at 10:28 PM
One other point- the people who represent taxpayers on the Board of Education are appointed- they are not elected so whose interests do they represent?
ira shor February 26, 2013 at 10:30 PM
Our schl rank down? Let's raise it with smaller classes, more quality teaching, not more costly testing. MTC's schl rep adds value to all properties, not only those with kids in schl. Schls give Mtc prime appeal along with racial diversity and leafy streets. If our town has been mismanaged for 20 yrs by the TCs and Mayors, let's not make it worse by making our kids pay for it. They didn't hand over PILOTS and abatements to developers. BOE has to represent children and families, not RE developers. A child-friendly, family-friendly BOE would ask first, What do the kids need to learn the most? And not be proud of returning surpluses to a build-it-bigger TC. Cutting schl budgets, we sabotage our kids and our property values at the same time, two big losses in one destructive move. Strong schls float prop values in these dreadful times and convince parents to dig deep for the taxes so we don't worry about our kids getting good teaching for 6 hrs a day. A family with 3 kids surely wins in this arrangement b/c pvt schls cost $20k/kid($40K/kid in NYC);a RE tax of even $30k is a bargain compared to a $60K tuition bill for 3 kids. This is why families move here, b/c high taxes for exc pub schls is the simply the best deal families can get now. Others lament lower-inc families unable to keep up with taxes. Again, I invite them to join me in a campaign for a progressive RE tax. We can devise a fair sliding-scale tax that protects the bottom half, top half pays more, which includes me.
Peter Zorich February 26, 2013 at 10:37 PM
We should not be giving health benefits to part time employees. It is unprecedented in the private sector and rare in the public sector. And please don't point the surplus as reasoning - that money should be used to offset future capital expenses or tax relief.
I'd-Rather-Be-at-63 February 26, 2013 at 11:40 PM
Thomas Reynolds and Tonya Coke both play the community card; however, they could not be further apart. Mr. Reynolds is right and Ms. Coke is (recklessly) wrong. School are an essential service to the whole of the community, not just to the children or the families of school--going children. School play an essential role in establishing and maintaining public order and a low crime rate. Schools provide the future leadership to our communities as well as an important focal point for the cultural and artistic life of the community. And school provide for learning and sports well beyond the school walls and athletic fields. Allow the Montclair school system to fall further below its current 99th ranking in the state, however real or perceived that might be, and all members of the community will lose on their property values (though their taxes will only likely continue increase). Good public school are essential to good communities, regardless of the percentage of town's people with school-going children or the availability of private education. Ira Shor presents well considered thoughts, but the value of good public schools for a community cannot be measured only through a simple cost comparison with private schools. Seeing how this Board of Education behaves with regard to education and students, it is difficult to take them seriously. The BOE is answerable only to the Town Council, and indeed it is the Town Council that is behind this devaluation of teaching and schools.
tryintosurvive February 26, 2013 at 11:43 PM
Ira - Please give us fair warning on the progressive real estate tax plan. The majority of the top half will move (especially the ones with no kids in school), leaving the lower half with even higher taxes than they have now.
I'd-Rather-Be-at-63 February 26, 2013 at 11:56 PM
As Ira Shor and esther rightly hint, the Board of Education is only doing what its lords have asked. We have been repeatedly told that the incompetence of this Town Council needs to be accepted because the town folk are now getting that for which they voted: "development" (with no vision, no transparency and no accountability). Supposedly this Town Council was not going to raise taxes or cut into the community services. However, by pressuring the Board of Education to save on teachers' and teacher aids' salaries and compensations, it is not only cutting into the most essential town service, the school system, but it is also seriously threatening the present education of Montclair's children as well as their future educational and professional development. How can the Town Council explain that it provides a pass to developers on paying town taxes but teachers and teacher's aids cannot receive a just contract? Parents, students, and all town folk should support (as the vast majority of them already seem to) the legitimate and reasonable proposal by the teachers for a "working to contract" action until the TC and the BOE stop trying to cut into the entire community's core service of a high quality education system.
Dan February 27, 2013 at 12:07 AM
I agree with your sentiment about excellent schools justifying higher taxes. However, by any measure Montclair schools underperform our counterparts. I've read too many opinions and our former Superintendent Alvarez' assertion that our diversity is to blame. Hogwash. When are the teachers accountable for this failure? Again, they are paid a salary to do a job. If they can't accomplish the job, bring someone in who can. Private sector salaried employees work until the job is done. The childish game that the union is playing now will only turn public sentiment against them. The BOE works for all taxpayers, including those without children. We cannot spend educational dollars in a vacuum. Finally a BOE is taking the long view and thank goodness.
MC February 27, 2013 at 03:28 AM
Yes, they did and that should be recognized. Because of their actions, there were no Montclair teacher layoffs at the height of state's and nation's fiscal crisis. With the assurance of no layoffs, the senior leaders of the MEA took a long-view and agreed to leave contracted pay increases on the table.
john anthony prignano February 27, 2013 at 04:05 AM
Dan The Newark Star - Ledger;Three million people in New Jersey earn $34,400 or less, and their take home pay is shrinking. 30% of working people in New Jersey rely on food stamps, up from 19% a decade ago.Unemployment is well over 9%. Twenty - one per cent of jobs lost during the retraction paid $13.50 an hour or less. FIFTY - EIGHT per cent of jobs created during the "recovery" pay $13.50 or less. 75% of the "new wealth" created in New Jersey in the past decade went to the top 20% of earners - households making $129,000 or more a year. It is not "wealth creation" when a {dwindling amount} of private sector money is simply transferred to the public sector. Ster Ledger - "Foreclosures Are Down Everywhere,- Except New Jersey. " That's why teachers salary demands are based on things like "We deserve a raise" "We work hard" " "We come early and stay late" "Our morale is low because we don't feel we're appreciated enough" NOT economic realities. If "We come early and stay late" anyway, and I assume that time is spent doing things important to the educational process, why not put those hours in the contract? On the contrary, teachers all over have been fighting and winning the battle for less hours , even as the instructional mandates grow and grow.They prepare children for every job that they don't grab in the private sector - in other words, crumbs. 58% of those jobs pay $13.50 an hour or less. Dan, you are 100% correct in everything you say. AND you are far from alone.
tryintosurvive February 27, 2013 at 01:46 PM
The town council has not chimed in on this topic at all, nor do I think that they have a say. I would suspect that their position is that the BOE needs to stay within its $110,000,000 budget.
I'd-Rather-Be-at-63 February 27, 2013 at 02:04 PM
During this long period of contract negotiations that has already past, and which has been entirely about taxpayer money for the Board of Education, it is interesting to (try and) believe that there has been no discussion on this topic between members of the BOE and those who appoint them, the Town Council. And it was interesting to see that the Town Council so lavishly congratulated itself recently for saving money through a "surplus" in the BOE's budget. It is also interesting to consider that during this crisis in a core town service, education, the Town Council has not "chimed in." The Town Council does most certainly expect a significant surplus in the BOE's 110 million dollar budget to contribute to "development." tryintosurvive, we may not be privy to exactly how the bells are rung inside the BOE, but surely it is not the interests of students, parents and the wider community pulling the ropes.
tryintosurvive February 27, 2013 at 02:25 PM
Not sure what the belI comment means, but I guess your answer means that the 3% that the teachers want is above the yearly raise that every teacher already gets.
I'd-Rather-Be-at-63 February 27, 2013 at 02:29 PM
No. tryintosurvive, perhaps read again. Montclair is not the right place to put development ahead of education.
tryintosurvive February 27, 2013 at 02:35 PM
I have not heard that anyone in trying to reduce the current $111,000,00 school budget and give it to anyone. I think what is being said is that the schools need to stay within that budget this year and for the next few years. They can't make an agreement that would go above that. That seems reasonable.
Peter Simon February 27, 2013 at 06:06 PM
Sorry, you're wrong. Giving benefits to part-time employees is NOT "unprecedented." It's becoming more and more common. http://ptmoney.com/the-ten-best-part-time-jobs-with-benefits/
Peter Simon February 27, 2013 at 06:11 PM
Confident predictions about tax flight are a dime a dozen, and not grounded in reality. This study is about state income taxes and out-of-state migration, but many of its points about the complex reasons that people live where they do are nonetheless relevant to your point. http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=3556
Peter Simon February 27, 2013 at 06:30 PM
Dan, It's not saying "our diversity is to blame" to point out that Montclair is one of only a very small handful of wealthy districts in NJ that contain a significant population in the bottom quintile of the economic pecking-order. It is simply calling into question the validity of comparing Montclair to homogeneous districts, especially in an ordinal ranking such as the one that NJ Monthly peddles every other year. I'm going to dust off this oldie but goodie because I believe it directly responds to your point without "blaming" our diversity. ++++++++++ "In my experience so far in Montclair, the parents who worry about the "mediocre" performance of the Montclair schools are generally middle-class or higher; i.e., high-SES. And the schools they tout as comparatively better are districts such as Glen Ridge, Millburn, and Tenafly--all three of which are largely white, high-SES communities. These three Google docs linked to below compare Glen Ridge, Millburn, and Tenafly to Montclair, based on the performance of each district's population of white students (which is the closest proxy we have to "high-SES" students) in the NJASK and HSPA tests: Glen Ridge: http://bit.ly/GW6bt3 Millburn: http://bit.ly/GYsiUb Tenafly: http://bit.ly/H10gZ9 As you can see, the results are essentially equivalent in these four districts (and actually, Montclair outperforms Glen Ridge)."
Montclair Public March 01, 2013 at 12:34 PM
Thank goodness Peter Zorich was not elected to anything. The first thing sentence of his post here is a pitiful distortion or an outright lie. The health benefits taken were from FULL-TIME aides. Go into any school and see for yourself what time they report, what time they leave and how much they do. Yes, there are also part-time aides. No, they have NEVER received health benefits. It is pathetic that you mislead those who only follow this casually and might be inclined to run with the nonsense that comes out of your mouth.
Townie March 01, 2013 at 02:54 PM
Money doesn't correlate to the quality of service delivery.
Peter Simon March 01, 2013 at 04:06 PM
You're right that research suggests that the mere increase in the amount of money paid to teachers doesn't correlate with improved educational outcomes. However, there are interesting studies that suggest that part of the difference between achievement in OECD countries has to do with differences in the relative *status* of teachers in their respective countries. That status is signaled, at least in part, by the rung on the economic ladder that teachers occupy relative to the society as a whole. In the U.S., teachers are much lower on the overall economic ladder than their counterparts are in high-achieving OECD countries. Especially in the U.S., where "status" is so much more about one's paycheck and net worth than the 'intangibles' of one's character, it seems to me pretty much self-evident that we don't, as a society, see teaching as a high-status profession, despite whatever lip service we concoct. And because of that, it is much more difficult for us to recruit a consistently-talented and motivated army of teachers than it is for other countries. It's not as though paying more will result in a sudden uptick in outcomes. But if we offer teachers wages that signal our belief that teaching is (or should be) a high-status, respected profession, then the tide will rise, and the quality of candidates for teaching positions will gradually and consistently improve.
Townie March 01, 2013 at 05:24 PM
One cannot drill down from US society to Montclair New Jersey and expect that the effect of a local 10% over 3 year salary increase will then filter back up to have meaningful impact on the status of teachers across the USA. We already pay more than many neighboring school systems and we privately donate considerable sums and are generally involved in our children's educations. We already have sent the signal that we value teachers. Signals go in both directions. There is a context in which many of our fellow citizens are struggling financially. Would anyone argue that Montclair's tax burden is not extraordinary? All the township's employees realize the local tax burden is sky-high and the gamesmanship being played out in this case makes all of us feel under-appreciated.
esther March 02, 2013 at 08:40 PM
Dan, Were you aware the teachers took a freeze and had no increase the last three years? Were you aware that most teachers work well beyond their contract time and take work home with them? And one more thing Dan, you may be able to find several thousand teachers who would be happy with the job but not many of them would be of the caliber of the excellence we have in our district. Quantity does not equal quality.
esther March 02, 2013 at 08:44 PM
So, you look at your child's classroom teachers as their private tutors- and think that these teachers should provide their time for free. Are you kidding me? I hired tutors for children when they need extra help- many many times. How much time do you provide your employer with extra work for no pay. Teachers are available at the high school during lunch periods every single day for students to receive extra help. Tell the whole story. Students are not used as pawns- the student asked a question and got an answer.
esther March 02, 2013 at 08:48 PM
You are incorrect Peter. Part time employees are eligible for benefits in many industries. Banking and many retail establishments are two I know of. One of the reasons there is a surplus is the board stopped paying for assistants' benefits- and here's another thing- we want quality people working in our schools. Assistants in Montclair must have certain levels of education and providing professionals with benefits is the right thing.
esther March 02, 2013 at 08:51 PM
Is anyone aware that the board of education wants to pay 700,000 dollars to hire outside evaluators to come in to evaluate the teachers in Montclair now that they have adopted a new evaluation tool? 700,000 dollars???????? Really- now someone defend that and say it makes sense. Isn't that why we have principals and vice principals? Isn't that their job? 700,000 dollars?????????
Montclair Public March 02, 2013 at 10:56 PM
it's what phony educators do when they get control: over-test and over-evaluate and create a top-heavy administration at the expense of those who actually teach. this new superintendent -- and this is not meant as a personal attack -- is a product of the Cristie-Cerf approach and her presence is in this town is the perfect illustration -- along with what was done to the aides -- of a BOE that does not represent Montclair's traditional (collective) values, nor its complex needs. she needs to be shouted down and pressured to leave

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