BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ – Before Thursday evening’s Board of Education meeting members of the Berkeley Heights Education Association (BHEA) held a rally along Plainfield Avenue. They carried signs and walked back and forth on the sidewalk, in front of Columbia Middle School. From time to time, drivers honked their horns in a show of support, which BHEA members greeted with cheers and waves.

The board and BHEA agreed upon a contract in October, before Superintendent of Schools Judith Rattner retired. All that remained to be done was for the two groups to agree upon how the money that was allocated for salary was to be distributed across the salary guide. That has not happened.

Once the first opportunity arose for audience members to speak on non-agenda items, teachers, some parents and a student stepped up to the microphone and argued the board should settle the salary guide dispute as soon as possible – a few even suggested that evening.  

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Dr. Meredith Morgan, a resident of the town, who teaches Honors and AP Chemistry at Governor Livingston High School, was the first speaker. After 19 years as a teacher in the district, two as a substitute teacher, she said, “I am putting my immediate family’s priorities ahead of my students’ priorities. It is all about fairness and my family’s long-term finances.”

Her remarks were made at about 80 minutes into the meeting.

She told the story of her decision to join the district as a substitute teacher. “There were many openings the year I was hired,” she said, and many more in the next few years  because the New Jersey Pension and Healthcare rules changed right after she was hired full time.  “Many long-term teachers retired … We were cheap labor” compared to the teachers who left.  In 2002, when Dr. Morgan first began teaching full time at the high school, she said she earned one-half of what she had been earning as a research chemist, even after negotiating and being hired at Step Three in the guide. Still, she said she had seen the salary guide before signing on and it was quite clear on the guide that raises would be small for many years, but would increase significantly during the last three to four years of the 19-step salary guide, which at the time meant 19 years. Plus, teachers could count on a reasonable pension as a form of “delayed compensation,” she said.  

Based on that information she said she made a decision to sign on. Today, after 17 years teaching full time, she is still in the low raise portion of the guide, a full $21,000 below the top of the guide,” she said.  That happened because the board has added steps to the guide, so if she should ever reach the top of the guide, she would have to stay at that position for another two years to “achieve the crucial three-year average which is a major determinate of the pension,” she said. 

As she understands it, the board wants to add even more steps to the guide, which will especially hurt her.  It a raise is delayed, that is “money that is never recouped,” she said, holding up a chart she made, showing it to the board and the audience. “We teachers are not asking for the world, we are asking for a fair contract commensurate with the contributions we make,” she said.  

She also said she has heard the board has declined to stick with the current guide, for which there are sufficient funds under the settlement. “Those of us who have been toiling at low wages for years in anticipation of the end of guide increases, will get some pieces of those end of guide increases. Rejecting even a continuation of the previous contract is nothing short of bait and switch,” she said.  

“This community has helped me with incredible generosity … But I need to care for my family’s financial future too. I need a fair contract,” she said. The crowd shouted its support for her position but she wasn’t finished.  

She pointed to her blue BHEA shirt, which association members wear when the contract has not been finally signed. “I have four of these,” she said, referencing the number of times the board has not reached a final agreement on the contract during her time in the district. The board’s “adversarial approach is hurting all of us. It is time to figure out a long-term plan that does not result in every third year being absolutely miserable for every committed teacher.”

When she finished her remarks, a series of speakers approached the board. One, a resident who moved into town about 45 years ago “because we heard it had an excellent school system.”  She urged the board to show its appreciation by providing a contract and to do it “tonight.”

Margaret Illis said she was concerned about the adversarial attitude she has heard from board members and as a taxpayer is “concerned the board has not been able to settle a contract on time for years” and wants to run the district “like a business, not like a school filled with children.”

She said she is concerned “How is this process not negatively impacting our schools? It’s negatively impacting the students … and the teachers.” It must also be impacting the recruitment of young teachers because they will know “we don’t settle contracts, ever.”

A student asked for more information about the salary guide and Board President Doug Reinstein said it was not the time to discuss it, “but I am happy to meet with you to talk about the questions you have.” He pointed out there was a difference of opinion on how to distribute the wages on the salary guide and the board is going through a collective bargaining process.

He asked “how high would you place the teachers’ contract?”

Reinstein said, “Extremely high” and the student countered, “Why is it taking so long?”

Reinstein replied it was “because the two sides have a different view on how it should be distributed.”

Board Vice President Bill Cassano explained why the board cannot speak directly on the specific differences, is because of fair labor practices, so as not to split the bargaining unit.

Chris Rinaldi, a parent and resident, said he has spoken to the board at least four times about the “still expired contract with the BHEA,” a contract that not only is not fully settled, but which community members have directly told the board “to settle this.” There are “literally dozens of community members (who) clearly say we do not agree with you. Do you hear us?” he asked.

He said he wonders why some board members do not speak up on the issue and left the board with three thoughts – the factfinder and attorney will cost “tens of thousands of dollars that should be spent on our children; this is not a game; and students are counting on you. Get this done.”

Others spoke. One asked if the board was actually “representing us?” and urging the board to “listen to the teachers.”

Cassano again explained the money is there, it is the distribution of the money on the guide that is the issue. He said the board wants to be fair to the teachers and the district, which means getting rid of problems created in the past, which has led to small raises for certain categories of teachers.

A mom asked if he board trusted its teachers and Reinstein said “implicitly.” The parent responded, “Then let them settle the contract.’

BHEA President Pam Wilczynski told the board the “students in our community are our number one priority and they always will be.”  That said, the teachers are also committed to the school community, but “we are not happy to work for this board of education,” she said.

Teachers are taking home “less than last year because our contributions to our pensions and health benefits go up and up…and our salaries have been frozen during this dispute.”  Because of the contributions being made to the district for its healthcare, “We’re actually bringing home less pay than we did in 2009-2010. How is that fair?”

The BHEA has proposed a distribution of the money agreed upon which “meets more of the board’s goals than it does ours,” she said. On the other hand, “the board’s salary proposal does not address several of the association’s chief concerns,” she said. Those concerns include “recognizing career staff members, funding the guide with a long-term view and mitigating smaller problems if left neglected could cost taxpayers more over time,” she said.

She urged the board to “settle the salary guide dispute and move on.” 

The crowd again erupted in applause.