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War Of Words Erupts Over Classroom Aides And Benefits

Head of union said she doesn't understand why benefits haven't been restored

 

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."

Robin Hoffman April 10, 2012 at 03:55 AM
Who cares who's blaming who? Set up a meeting, re-open the contract, and restore benefits pronto. Or is there some legal reason that's not possible? Why is this still dragging on for crying out loud?
Leslie Masuzzo April 10, 2012 at 10:49 AM
First the BOE removed the health benefits of Aides even after state funding levels were restored and it was clear that it would render a negative budget number last year. Then after the surplus was uncovered, the BOE said they had looked into the legalities of restoring the benefits and found that it could not be done without reopening the entire contract and subjecting all MEA members to an increase in premiums as per state law. Finally, after the MEA reported that it was possible to restore the benefits without opening the contract, the BOE decided to only consider the matter as part of the new contract talks thereby removing the topic from discussion in terms of restoration this year. This was deeply disappointing for Jim Z., me, and the other dozens of Special Education Teacher's Aides who relied on those benefits to support our families.
Montclair's Own April 10, 2012 at 01:59 PM
Leslie, Thank you for clearing this up. Many people need to know that the benefits could be restored, legally, without re-opening the contract. But this is all a negotiating ploy by the BOE.
hereswhatithink April 10, 2012 at 02:45 PM
Re-opening the contract would mean that the rest of the teachers would now have to pay 1.5% (gasp compared to what the private sector pays) for their health benefits instead of 0.5%. They will not pay this additional 1% which is required by law a nanosecond earlier than needed and that will be when they negotiate new contracts in June.
Right of Center April 10, 2012 at 03:10 PM
"Who cares who's blaming who? Set up a meeting, re-open the contract, and restore benefits pronto." Because the teachers don't want to go from paying .5% of the cost of their benefits to 1.5%. If you reopen the contract, state law mandates the higher rate. Their health insurance premiums for a family would go from $100 per year (no typo) to $300 per month. That's what the fight is over. Teacher's won't go from $8 per month to $24 per month for family coverage. Doing this would give the aides back their benefits. But, you know, it's the BOE that are the heartless ones here.
Right of Center April 10, 2012 at 03:11 PM
Why are comments being moderated in this thread?
Right of Center April 10, 2012 at 03:12 PM
"Who cares who's blaming who? Set up a meeting, re-open the contract, and restore benefits pronto." Because the teachers don't want to go from paying .5% of the cost of their benefits to 1.5%. If you reopen the contract, state law mandates the higher rate. Their health insurance premiums for a family would go from $100 per year (no typo) to $300 per year. That's what the fight is over. Teacher's refuse to go from $8 per month to $24 per month for family coverage. Doing this would give the aides back their benefits. But, you know, it's the BOE that are the heartless ones here.
Shelley Emling (Editor) April 10, 2012 at 03:45 PM
Should be fixed now.. comments should soon appear.. sorry about that!
Right of Center April 10, 2012 at 04:07 PM
"Who cares who's blaming who? Set up a meeting, re-open the contract, and restore benefits pronto." Because the teachers don't want to go from paying 0.5% of the their salaries for their benefits to 1.5%. If you reopen the contract, state law mandates the higher rate. Their health insurance premiums for a family would go from $250 per year (no typo) to $750 per year. That's what the fight is over. Teacher's refuse to go from $20 per month to $60 per month for family coverage. Doing this would give the aides back their benefits. But, you know, it's the BOE that are the heartless ones here.
Bronwyn April 10, 2012 at 04:31 PM
"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." "Finally, after the MEA reported that it was possible to restore the benefits without opening the contract, the BOE decided to only consider the matter as part of the new contract talks thereby removing the topic from discussion in terms of restoration this year." What's the deal here? These two statements do not align. Does the contract need to be re-opened or not?
Right of Center April 10, 2012 at 04:43 PM
The statements can both be true, you just have to read carefully: "If you want to use the surplus, the contract has to be reopened. If you just want to pay for the benefits out of the general fund, then you don't." Is one possible reading reconciling the two statements. But, one thing is clear. The contract gets "reopened" at the expiration of the contract term in a little over two months anyway. So all this talk of "restoring the benefits" now is malarkey. What's happening is both sides are setting the stage for the negotiations at the end of June. The MEA wants the aides benefits restored so that they cannot be used as a bargaining chip. Lombard, (rightly and in the interest of taxpayers!) wants to retain that chip for bargaining.
Bronwyn April 10, 2012 at 04:49 PM
Okay, I see. I think that's a pretty crappy bargaining chip.
Right of Center April 10, 2012 at 04:50 PM
Welcome to the real world Bronwyn.
Bronwyn April 10, 2012 at 04:57 PM
Condescending as usual with the pedestrian philosophy that only conservatives operate in the real world.
Right of Center April 10, 2012 at 05:02 PM
as if "crappy bargaining chip" wasn't a value statement. I don't care if you are conservative or liberal or Fidel Castro himself, to think that benefits and health insurance are not legitimate objects of collective barganing, is naive.
Bronwyn April 10, 2012 at 05:12 PM
Of course I think that benefits are part of collective bargaining but I disagreed with the decision to take away the aides' benefits from the outset.
Right of Center April 10, 2012 at 05:15 PM
And by "pretty crappy bargaining chip." you are implying some untoward or cruel behavior on the part of Ms. Lombard or the BOE. Perhaps I could put it into a parlance you are familiar with: "Condescending as usual with the sanctimonious philosophy that only liberals operate in compassionate world."
Bronwyn April 10, 2012 at 05:28 PM
I am simply saying that I don't agree with the decision. And it's not as if my language is any different from implying that teachers are heartless like you did in one of your statements above.
Bronwyn April 10, 2012 at 05:30 PM
This thread has become very fitting--it echoes the headline (war of words).
Montclair Lover April 10, 2012 at 05:30 PM
Stop feeding the troll Bronwyn....
CGI Debate April 11, 2012 at 02:48 PM
The Montclair High School Civics and Government Institute will be hosting a community-wide mayoral debate. The debate will take place April 26 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the school's LGI room. The focus of the debate will be on education in Montclair. It will be moderated by two high school seniors, Chris Murphy and Gabriella Peterson. Residents can submit questions for the candidates via email at cgidebate@gmail.com or Twitter @CGIdebate.
Leslie Masuzzo April 12, 2012 at 12:34 AM
I don't like being referred to as a "chip" Mr. or Ms. Right of Center. Although I have been used as a pawn so why not refer to me as a chip. You know what "greedy" teachers and school staff were doing before the recession while Wall Streeters and others in the private sector were cashing in? They were getting relatively modest incremental annual salary increases. Since the recession, when a 3% raise started looking like a lottery win, teachers are seen as greedy and the scapegoats for all of our economic ills. Teachers don't get big bonuses or stock options when times are good so why begrudge the incremental increases teachers receive when times are lean? Meanwhile, the MEA has been fighting every step of the way for restoration of benefits to Special Education Teacher's Aides, not just now at contract renewal time. And another thing, $3,600 is not "malarkey" to me and my family - that's the cost of the health care premiums I have to pay now to cover my family for the next two months. If everyone was so interested in the taxpayers, why weren't all the central staffers (HR, Benefits, Payroll, Accounting, IT, etc.) outsourced by one of the million or so firms in the area who do that sort of thing? I'm so glad that my family's suffering has eased your tax burden!

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