BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The Berkeley Heights Board of Education was equally disappointed with the lack of progress made in Tuesday evening's contract negotiations meeting with the Berkeley Heights Education Association (BHEA).
"The Board had hoped to make more progress towards a settlement," said Doug Reinstein, Chairman of the Board's Negotiations Committee.
Tuesday evening, the Board of Education met with the BHEA for the first time since the June 30 expiration of the current BHEA contract.
According to Reinstein, the Board has been engaged in negotiations with the BHEA since March and it was the BHEA that declared an impasse in June and requested the assistance of a mediator.
"We had to wait months to be assigned a mediator and then schedule a meeting," said Reinstein. "The Board remains open to meeting outside of the mediation process as well."
"Every three years, the group [BHEA] has to go back to the negotiation table to negotiate the terms and conditions of what their compensation will be," Dominick Giordano, NJEA representative, told TAP into Berkeley Heights at a rally held prior to Tuesday's meeting. "It's grueling -- until there's a settlement, these folks are frozen in place salary-wise. [However,] their health care and the other liabilities go up, they don't freeze."
According to Reinstein, the Board’s goal is simple – "to agree upon a contract that is both fair and equitable for the teachers, paraprofessional and secretaries, while balancing the financial constraints of the district and hence the taxpayers."
More than 100 teachers, secretaries, paraprofessionals and interpreters showed up Tuesday evening in solidarity to show their support to the BHEA's negotiations committee. Many carrying signs with the message, "No Contract, Still Working."
Contrary to this message, Reinstein said, "The teachers are not working without a contract -- the salaries, provisions and protections of the previous contract are still in effect. The law states that when the contract ends, the current contract continues."
"The same salary and provisions and protections the employees have continues. They are not working without a contract, however, the salaries are at the same level as the previous year," he added.
The BHEA is looking to find a fair middle ground regarding salaries and language issues regarding insurance.
"The Board continues to follow the NJ State law regarding employee’s contribution to their benefits," said Reinstein.
The state law passed four years ago by Gov. Chris Christie provides for changes to the manner in which the State-administered retirement systems operate and to the benefit provisions of those systems, according to the NJEA website. The law also changes the manner in which the State-administered Health Benefits Programs operate and the employee contribution and benefit provisions of those programs.
The BHEA is in "Tier 4" of the employee contribution scale, which is the highest level of contribution, representing a 33-percent increase in participant contribution over the prior year's contribution. "This scale is a standard rate the teachers are paying. They are paying 30 to 34-percent of their insurance premium," said Giordano.
"There are a number of things they [BHEA] want to change, and we are following the law -- we did not write the law, we are abiding the law. This is what the law has given to state employees," said Reinstein.
Reinstein hopes to meet before the next scheduled meeting in December. However, the mediator's schedule is what makes it difficult, he said.
"The Board looks forward to settling the open issues as expeditiously as possible," said Reinstein.."The board doesn't want this to drag out -- the Board wants to solve this as soon as possible and let everyone get back to doing what is important."
"We have worked with mediators before and we've worked without them. We've always reached an agreement and I am confident that we will reach an agreement with or without a mediator," said Reinstein.