After numerous negotiations, mediation sessions and a formal 9 hour fact-finding hearing held on January 14, 2016, the staff of the Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District which is comprised of Oakcrest, Absegami and Cedar Creek High Schools will be ending the school year with no contract in place. The 435 affected employees including teachers and support staff personnel are represented by the Greater Egg Harbor Regional Education Association.
The fact-finder’s 109 page report was issued on May 20, 2016. Pursuant to law, the parties are required to meet and discuss the findings of the report and their positions prior to the report becoming public. Representatives of the Association and Board met on Wednesday, June 8 to discuss the report and to advise the other of their acceptance or rejection of the recommendations contained in the report.
According to Stephanie Tarr, President of the Association, the Association advised the Board that while it may not have been happy with every recommendation contained in the report, they believed the report to be fair and impartial and therefore advised the Board that the Association had accepted the report in its entirety including the total salary increases recommended and only took exception with the recommended structure of the salary guide which would have added 4 additional steps to the guide making a teacher wait for 4 additional years before reaching the maximum salary.
The Association had developed alternative guides which were based on the total dollar amounts recommended by the fact-finder but only added 2 additional steps.
The Board advised the Association that it rejected the report but was willing to accept certain recommendations contained in the report. Tarr stated: “The Board’s negotiator reviewed each issue with us and basically cherry picked and accepted the recommendations that were in its favor and rejected the ones that were in the Association’s favor. While there were recommendations that we were not happy with, we believe in the process and believed that after a 9 hour hearing at which time both sides presented 2 five inch binders each of relevant documents to an impartial fact-finder to substantiate its proposals and positions, the final report issued was fair. We did not get everything we wanted and neither did the Board.”
Myron Plotkin, the NJEA representative for the Association said “ the presentation of documents at the fact-finding hearing and the length of the hearing was one of the longest in the state. Both sides had ample opportunity to present evidence and witnesses. The fact that the report did not recommend all of the proposals that the Board had presented was in fact based on the documentation provided at the hearing by the Board. The Association is not cherry picking. We are accepting the good and the bad. The Board on the other hand only wants to accept the good for their side and has now made revised proposals that have resulted in the parties being even further apart than they were before.”
Tarr stated that “The Board’s actions only exacerbate an already low morale and do nothing to improve the damaged relationship between the Association and the Board. This is extremely upsetting when one considers that the Superintendent, John Keenan, will again be receiving another $25,000 bonus payment this year for achieving “goals” that are part of any superintendent’s normal duties. This is in addition to an increase from his last year’s $165,000 base salary to $167,500 this year. The fact that there is money to give one of the top paid administrators in the County another $25,000 bonus this year which is only his second year of employment while saying there is no money available for salary increases for teachers and staff who are in the trenches working with the students every day is ludicrous and insulting to the staff.”
The fact-finder in recognition of recommended increases in the work year and the number of after-school meetings to be held, recommended salary increases of 4.09% in year 1, 2.82% in year 2 and 2.86% in year three. For support staff the recommendations were 3% in each year.
Tarr stated that “In addition, and most disheartening was the fact that the Board made a revised salary proposal to us that was not even close to the fact-finder’s recommendation and would not even allow for the continuation of the current salary guide and also providing no increases for the most experienced staff members. This is totally unacceptable to the Association. The Board actually went backwards in their economic offers to us.”
Besides only accepting the recommendations that benefitted them, the Board added a new proposal that in order to have any settlement, all pending grievances and arbitrations would have to be withdrawn by the Association.
Plotkin said “This attempt by the Board to basically have the Association allow it to violate its contract over and over again is unconscionable and will never be agreed to by the Association. The Association has filed approximately 10 to 12 grievances since the arrival of Mr. Keenan and in the 5 that have already been heard by an arbitrator, the Association has prevailed in every single one. The parties are waiting for two more arbitration awards that are due any day now. That alone should send a message to the Board and the public that something is wrong in paradise”.
Plotkin said that according to records that have been supplied as a result of OPRA requests, the Board as of March has spent in excess of $125,000 in legal fees in litigation with the Association and defending the positions of the Board in the grievances and the ongoing negotiations. “It boggles the mind that the Board and its administration is willing and continues to pay bonuses to the superintendent and it attorneys when it has not been successful in one matter.” Plotkin said.
When asked what actions the Association may be contemplating, Tarr stated, “at this point our action team is in high gear preparing for actions in the future as well as the Association looking for office space to open a crisis office.” When asked if the opening of an office was a prelude to a work stoppage by school employees, Tarr said. “At this point in time no formal vote on a work stoppage has been taken. However, the Association is keeping all of its options open and is not excluding a possible work stoppage. While the disruption of services is the very last thing our members want to do, the Board has maintained its position in these negotiations of what amounts to a significant reduction in overall salaries and a gutting of our contract while demanding a additional time to be worked with no additional compensation.
This is unacceptable to our members”, Tarr stated. “The ball is in the Board’s court. Whatever happens is the fault of the Board and the Association is keeping all avenues open to it as far as possible actions may go”. She concluded “We hope this contract can be settled with no disruption of the educational process, but let me make it clear, that with the current climate in the schools and the positions being maintained by the district Administration and the Board, that is becoming harder and harder to do.”
If fact-finding fails to produce a settlement, the last step in the negotiations process is the state appointing a “super-conciliator” to assist the parties is reaching a settlement. According to Plotkin, “A “super-conciliator” can order the parties to meet around the clock in order to reach a settlement. He can also write a recommendation for a settlement.
However, that recommendation is also not binding on the parties. The Association hopes that the Board will reach a settlement with the Association without the need for a super-conciliator which will only prolong this process more. This is the last step in the formal negotiations process. If no settlement can be reached, then it will be left up to the
Association to determine what future actions may be taken. If other districts can negotiate in good faith and reach agreements in these economic times, we see no reason why this Board is any different. We are only attempting to reach a fair and equitable settlement just like other districts have done and are doing in Atlantic County.” Plotkin concluded
While no date has been set for a formal vote on any work stoppage, Tarr stated “Hopefully a settlement can be reached without the need for super-conciliation. We are doing and will continue to do all within our power to resolve this dispute without any need for disruption, however, we need to bring closure to this dispute and will not allow it to continue to drag on. We want to be able to return to what we do best, teach and care for the children.” Tarr said.