Teachers: Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Teachers once again pack the board of education meeting.
With the teachers once again packing the board of education meeting Tuesday evening to discuss the state of the negotiations, this week's message was one of the need for fairness and respect toward the staff.
"It appears the board does not perceive us as professionals, and in fact dehumanizes us," said Katrina Macht, a teacher at Hillside Intermediate School. "I find this really unfathomable because you have children in the district too. Do you not want the best and brightest to be teaching your children?"
"I am appealing to you, please return to the negotiations table and negotiate fairly," she added. "It will not cost the taxpayers any more."
The focus of the teachers who spoke before the board was split between pointing out that they are just looking for a fair deal, and the fact that the board recently changed the health benefits without going back to the negotiating table first.
On the first point, Bridgewater-Raritan High School math teacher David Weth said he is frustrated and angered by the current negotiations. Regardless of when it is done, he said, the board saves $6,000 from his own salary by switching to the state health plan, and he pays an additional $6,000 to the board through the new plan.
Although Weth has one of the more expensive plans because it is a family one, he knows the district is saving thousands for each staff member.
"[A total of] $12,000 is saved on me alone, but I should lose more money three years in a row," he said. "The difference between the current B-REA and BOE offers amounts to less than $25 to the average household for the current year."
"The board will have a great surplus each year," he added. "But instead you expect teachers to gain nothing or even lose money."
But with this and the continued negotiations, the teachers said, morale in the district has fallen to a new low.
"Something that does not make me feel appreciated is the feeling that we are not being listened to," said Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School teacher, and Bridgewater resident, Judy Bast, who pointed out that this is Teacher Appreciation Week. "I don't appreciate when colleagues and people who are supposed to be in the game for the same reason don't listen."
The residents themselves need to be clear on what the teachers are asking for, Bast said. Basically, she said, they are not asking for a salary increase, just to not lose too much money.
"We are asking for the inevitable pay decrease to not be as drastic," she said. "It will only cost the district found money from health benefits, we are not causing a tax increase."
And aside from the money the teachers are not receiving, several teachers said, the board is now paying a lawyer to handle the work.
"I think it's more than unfair, it's a disgrace," said fourth grade Van Holten Primary School teacher Danielle Powell. "Your actions have shown what you feel about us, and obviously it's not much. You have made our jobs more demanding, but we have persevered despite the challenges."
"You have the money, you are choosing not to give it to us," she added. "We are people, yet you have treated us like we don't matter."
Eisenhower Intermediate School vocal teacher Roberta Maher said piece of mind is also important in settling this contract. As someone suffering from multiple sclerosis, she said she knows personally how stress can affect a medical condition.
"Anyone with a chronic illness will tell you that stress is one of the biggest factors in it," she said, adding that she had an episode in the first four months of working for the district 10 years ago, and she lost the ability to see clearly for a month. But, she said, she only missed four days of work. "I wanted my new employer to see that I wasn't going to be a liability."
And, Maher said, she does not regret any choices she has made about working through the illness, but she worries about the stress of the negotiation process.
"I would like peace of mind, and would like you to settle for all teachers working through poor health like I did because they care about the children," she said. "Luckily for this district, I have chosen to still do what I need to do, and that is put Bridgewater-Raritan children first."
With all of these factors, Hillside Intermediate School teacher Jamie Blumenberg said she just doesn't understand why this process cannot be resolved.
"I was first saddened, then disappointed and now I'm appalled," she said. "The board of education has decided it doesn't want to compromise, but would rather pay an attorney $160 an hour. They would prefer to give a stranger money rather than the people who teach the children of this community."
And when the district was first dealing with the loss of millions in state aid, Blumenberg said, the B-REA opened negotiations to give back $1.6 million in an effort to help the district.
"It seemed reasonable two years ago for us to give you $1.6 million, but now it's said we are greedy to ask for something in return," she said. "All we're asking for is enough money for everyone to move one step on the guide. They will still make significantly less."
Blumenberg said she is disappointed by the fact that central administration is receiving raises higher than the cap established by the state.
"Is it unreasonable to ask for a little help so the cut we will inevitably take will effect us just a little less?" she asked.
Aside from the issue of fairness, teachers expressed disappointment over the board's decision to change the health care insurance at the previous meeting, despite the fact that benefits are part of the negotiations.
"These items are under negotiations, and part of a legal contract, which you have decided to breech," said Ann Rock, a guidance counselor at the middle school. "I know there are members of the legal profession on the board, and I find it incredible they do not know the definition of breech of contract."
The board voted for a resolution April 24 to change the dental and prescription plans, moving from Aetna to Delta Dental and from Aetna for prescriptions to Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Business administrator Peter Starrs said the dental plan with Aetna would increase 7 percent, but Delta Dental only increases by 5.5 percent.
Board of education president Evan Lerner said at the previous meeting that this change would allow the district to provide equal or better coverage.
But many staff members at Tuesday's meeting felt differently.
"Changing health care plans is an item of the present negotiations between the board and the B-REA," said Joe Krenetsky, math teacher at the high school and negotiations chair for the union. "The board is, and was, aware that they could not make this change without the B-REA's consent because the plans are not equal."
So, Krenetsky said, the board is legally required to negotiate before the change is made.
In response to this, Krenetsky said, the B-REA already filed a grievance against the board about a month ago, and, after the last board meeting, filed an unfair labor practice against the board.
"The board's own broker has admitted that the plan is not equal to or better than the present plan, contradicting statements made by this board," he said. "This illegal action could cost the residents tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and fines when all of this is over."
"Residents of Bridgewater and Raritan need to understand that this board has decided to break the law rather than negotiate in good faith with the staff and teachers of this school district," he added.
Still, with teachers struggling to make ends meet, and demands on their time increasing with larger class sizes and more requirements from the state and others, they used Tuesday's meeting just to ask for a fair deal.
"One thing has remained a constant, that I continue to be surrounded by some of the most hard-working dedicated professionals any community could hope to have," Macht said. "If you are going to put the children first, you cannot put the teachers last."