Gayl Shepard, the head of the Montclair Education Association, told the Board of Education on Monday night that she doesn't understand why health benefits have not been restored to the district's classroom aides in light of the budget surplus announced last year.
She said—during a lengthy and passionate exchange—that she also believed it was "inflammatory" for the school board to blame the MEA for the loss of benefits.
Earlier this month, the Board of School Estimate approved a $114 million schools budget for the 2012-2013 school year that did not raise the school tax levy—and also did not restore benefits to classroom aides.
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 reopened.
They said that the contract would have to be reopened 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 law.
Currently teachers and other MEA members contribute .5 percent, they said.
Even so, Shepard argued Monday night that the school board should not be continuing to blame the MEA for the loss of health benefits.
At last week's Board of School Estimate meeting, classroom aide Jim Zarrilli—a tireless advocate for the restoration of benefits—spoke out about the issue.
Shepard said that, during Zarrilli's exchange with the board last week, the MEA was blamed for the loss of benefits.
She said that "not restoring benefits and blaming to some degree the MEA for the loss of benefits is devastating ... I find it very disconcerting."
Shepard said there remains a huge pink elephant in the room—a surplus of $11 million revealed by the district late last year.
"We're clear as to why health benefits were taken away but not so clear as to why they were not restored," she said. "We want to move on but we can't as long as we're being blamed for something we can't take responsibility for."
Lombard said the issue has been explained a million times, emphasizing that the surplus was $5.7 million—and not $11 million.
"We couldn't use the surplus to restore benefits unless we reopened the contract with the MEA," she said. "In order to restore benefits, we would have had to reopen the contract. We have explained that multiple times. We don't seem to be hearing each other."
Lombard also emphasized that she never lashed out at Zarrilli at the Board of School Estimate meeting. She said she only explained the chronology of what had happened thus far between the school board and the MEA.
"I explained [things] to him ... he lashed out at us. I understand that. He's upset and concerned," she said. "I did not blame him and I did not blame the MEA."
But Shepard seemed intent on making a point.
"I am not hearing anyone take any ownership of this situation," she said. "I ask that the blaming stop because it's counterproductive."