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.