June 10, 2014 at 10:20 PM
I believe there are multiple reasons that our recent Board of Education elections have been unopposed, and that as of now, nobody has stepped up to run this fall.
One major reason, in my opinion, is nights like this and votes such as the one in front of me on a new contract with our dedicated, outstanding Westfield teachers. Tonight’s vote is not easy, but as I was told by a very wise former board member, “It is your role to always speak up and vote your conscience.”
As some of you know, one of the reasons I was asked to run and was elected four years ago is that I am not afraid to give my honest opinion on the tough choices that have to be made in a district of our size.
Let me start with a brief history lesson. Back in 2010, Westfield taxpayers were dealing with an economy with negative growth and massive job cuts, and pay cuts (not raises) for most of our citizens. Many of my friends and neighbors were struggling to make ends meet for the first time in their working lives. Then the unkindest cut of all came to New Jersey Education when the reality of underfunding hit Trenton, forcing a massive slash in state aid that forced Westfield and other NJ districts to cut teachers, programs and implement a fee for all student activities.
Our biggest budget challenges, in my opinion, came that year when the Westfield teachers’ contract was approved (curiously the night before the governor’s speech) giving teachers nearly four percent raises that could not be afforded. In my mind, that one decision has challenged us by delaying much-needed state-of-the-art technology infrastructure and classroom and building facility repairs. I don't have the exact figures but I am fairly confident that over the last 10 years teacher's salaries in Westfield have outpaced inflation dramatically and the taxpayers had to bear the brunt of that burden.
So this is the tough part again—I am not saying the raises aren’t deserved. Teachers in our country are vastly undervalued and underpaid compared to other professions. But the fact of the matter is that our budget that pays for Westfield teachers’ salaries comes from Westfield taxpayers who continue to see excessively high taxes and live in a county that provides no help at all with funding or legislating any of our local needs.
So here we are back at the table in 2014. This time I was fortunate to be on the negotiating team and experience firsthand how this process works. I will say I walked away with great respect for everyone on both sides of the table and believe that all parties involved kept in mind the main reason we were there: The 6,600 students that walk the halls of our schools daily.
Still, tough decisions have to be made. This fall the halls of the high school will be overflowing with nearly 2,000 students. We still have a wish list of items that we hope to pay for in the next five years. Later this week our kids will take finals in rooms that are not air-conditioned, we have auditoriums at the middle school level that desperately need a makeover, we hope to create STEM labs, replace classroom floors and resurface gym floors … the list of critical needs goes on and on. All of these hopefully will get done eventually, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could do more of them now.?
The way it works in public education is simple math. Roughly 75 percent of the public money we have to allocate goes toward district salaries and benefits. We have very little wiggle room beyond that. It is my view that we could have done better with this contract and perhaps, as I had hoped, negotiated at least one year without an increase to lessen either the tax burden and/or evenly distribute those funds to other critical needs throughout the district. There needs to be more of a balance.
I was the only member of the Board Negotiating Team to not sign the memorandum of authorization to bring this contract forward and tonight and, with a heavy heart but a clear conscience, I voted NO on this agenda item.
Member, Westfield Board of Education
June 10, 2014
Editor’s note: Westfield’s board of education voted to approve the contract with the Westfield Education Association, 5-2. To read our full story, click here.
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