Teachers: If It’s Not Broke, Why Fix It?
Hundreds show support for the union at Tuesday’s board of education meeting.
Hundreds of teachers packed both the inside and outside of the Wade Administration Building Tuesday to show their support for each other and tell the board of education that they want a fair deal.
“In 2002, I felt appreciated and respected,” said Betsy Becker, a retiree who began teaching Latin at the Bridgewater-Raritan High School this year. “This year, I feel trod upon and no longer respected.”
The members of the Bridgewater-Raritan Education Association have been working without a contract since it expired in June 2011. After going though three mediation sessions, both parties have been advised to move into the fact-finding process.
Becker said she retired 10 years ago, and was a substitute for the past eight years. This year, she said, she returned to the high school as a Latin teacher.
“I have watched the demands on the teachers increase each year while morale has decreased proportionally,” she said. “I was overwhelmed by how different the teaching experience is.”
Many of the teachers spoke out at the meeting, emphasizing that they do not just work during the six hours of the school day. In fact, they said, they come in early, leave late and spend evenings and weekends grading papers and completing other work.
“For my first five years as a teacher, I worked nine- to 13-hour days,” said Crim Primary School teacher Avani Kotak. “Summers would come and I would spend weeks in the classroom getting ready for the kids.”
“Yet this year I can’t stay until 5 p.m., 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. because I have to work a second job because I’m scared of what’s to come," she added. “We’re asking you for what’s already there and what’s already ours. We’re taking care of students in the district, but who’s taking care of us?”
The teachers present discussed the accomplishments of the students in the district, from acing advanced placement and other standardized tests, to placing in national competitions and being named one of the best districts in the country.
“There are people who were elected to do for you what is best for you and your kids,” said Patrick Friedman, a science teacher at the high school. “What are you trying to fix, or is this a game?”
“For something that’s not broke, it should be real easy to keep it going,” he added. “If it’s not broke, don’t change it.”
Caroline Czysz, a teacher at Eisenhower Intermediate, said there was a time she was proud to be a part of the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District, and, as a graduate of the district herself, she took her cues on how to be teacher from those who taught her when she was a student.
“Because of the example set for me, I came to work in the district,” she said. “But now I doubt my faith and question my assumption that the district cares about the students.”
“The staff are stressed, the work loads are increased and we are asked to do more for less,” she added. “As a teacher, a resident and a parent, this scares me. You have surpassed the opportunity for giving the teachers a fair settlement, and we are already suffering economically, professionally and personally.”
Matthew Fleming, a teacher at the high school, said he moved to the township after hearing what the district has to offer, and four years ago he was offered a position to teach. He said the district has become what it is because of the dedication of the administration, teachers and parents—but that dedication is waning.
“We fully understand the economic times, and that you have a bottom line,” he said. “But if you look at the numbers, give-backs and health rates, the top of the guide would not change, and we could give teachers who have worked for eight years at less than $50,000 the chance to move up.”
“But we look at legal fees and missed savings in health benefits,” he added. “We look at how much you are willing to waste, and whatever the settlement ends up being, when you look at the total cost, it will far outweigh the 2.8 percent.”
Paul Kloberg, an engineer and physics teacher at the high school, said these negotiations cannot be about the numbers. He said he understands the numbers themselves, but what matters the most is communication.
“I ask that you simply communicate and try to figure out what this is all about,” he said. “My hope is that you can realize how privileged we all are to get to hang out with all these people right here.”
Diane Setcavage, a science teacher at the high school, said teaching is both the hardest and most rewarding job she has ever had, and she understands that not everyone can be pleased with the outcomes.
But, Setcavage said, she doesn’t understand why an agreement can’t be reached in such a well-respected and high-performing district.
“I am confused as to why the board of education is angry with the educators in the district, and why you want to punish us,” she said, adding that people in private industries receive merit pay increases based on the work they do. “We’re in the top 2.3 percent nationally for how well kids do on college boards and AP exams, our honors biology students are ranked two out of over 100 New Jersey high schools.”
“This doesn’t happen without dedication and hard work from all the teachers in the district,” she added. “I am challenging that the board of education do the right thing and be a good role model for the children.”
Keith Shapiro, an English teacher at the high school, said he felt respected when a board of education member shook his hand several years ago after he was able to report a student’s possible plan to bring a bomb to school because friends of the student felt comfortable talking to him.
“Unfortunately, I no longer feel the appreciation, but I know what it looks and feels like,” he said. “I am not asking for what I deserve, I am asking for what’s fair. I deserve feeling the appreciation you gave me the day you shook my hand.”
Aside from the teachers requesting the appreciation and respect from the district, several parents and former students came forward to speak on behalf of their teachers.
Evan Rallis, a 2011 graduate from the high school, said he is now a freshman at the University of Richmond and made it there because of the teachers. Diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder when he was younger, he spent his first two years of high school not caring about his grades.
That changed his junior year, Rallis said, and he graduated as an AP Scholar student, earning top scores on four out of five exams.
“I wanted to thanks all the teachers for everything they have done for me,” he said.
Resident Garrett Moore said he would think that the board of education and the teachers could work together to come to an agreement.
“It seems that in recent years, there’s been more of an adversarial attitude going on,” he said. “Indeed at the state level, there seems to be an attitude that looks down upon the teaching profession. I don’t understand that at all.”
“Education is the cornerstone of our society,” he added, “and if you slight our teachers, you are really doing us a great disservice.”
At the end of the meeting, the board voted on a resolution 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.
“We’re going to provide equal or better coverage for dental and prescription for less money,” said board of education president Evan Lerner.
But many of the teachers were dismayed that this change was being made away from the bargaining table, as part of the issue in negotiations has been over health insurance.
“That money is what we are talking about in the package,” said Steve Beatty, B-REA president and social studies teacher at the high school. “You are coming back and saying you are making a change, when we said not to change it in the first place two years ago, and now you’re changing it back.”
“You are taking pieces out [of the bargaining], and being disrespectful to these people here and to the community,” he added. “Don’t do this, come to the table and make the deal there.”
But with one abstention from board member Jeffrey Brookner and a no vote from member Daniel Petrozelli, the resolution to change dental and prescription insurance passed.
“I heard what the teachers have been saying and I definitely value what they are saying, and I know everyone works hard,” said board member Cindy Cullen. “I would like to negotiate, but as the clock ticks, the district is losing more and more money.”
Overall, the message from the teachers was that they want to be respected, and that was proven through the hundreds of people wearing red in support of them.
“We are already doing more with less, and now you are asking us to do more with less for less,” Czysz said. “You can’t expect blue ribbon success with a Walmart mentality.”