BRIDGEWATER, NJ - With the next mediation meeting scheduled for Oct. 22, and tensions continuing to run high, members of the Bridgewater-Raritan Education Association turned out to Tuesday’s board of education meeting to speak out against the continued contract negotiations – and one student explained how the suspension of clubs during negotiations has affected her position representing the district statewide.
The most recent three-year contract was approved in May 2016, following a year of negotiations and back-and-forth between the board of education and the teacher's union. It was retroactive to June 2015, when the previous contract expired.
The latest contract expired in June, and negotiations have been ongoing since January.
At the last board of education meeting in late September, members of the BREA announced that, as of Sept. 17, all volunteer non-stipend activities at Bridgewater-Raritan High School, had stopped or not started at all while there is no contract.
As of Nov. 1, it was announced, all voluntary clubs and activities at all other schools in the district would not begin or continue unless positive movement is made on the contract.
For one student who spoke out Tuesday, that suspension of clubs and activities has had a profound impact on her year in school.
Bridgewater-Raritan High School senior Alyssa Song said she served last year as a New Jersey state officer for the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA). But, because the BRHS chapter could not officiate this year due to the continuing negotiations, she was forced to resign from her position.
“There are many opportunities I will miss out on,” she said. “Recently, the council went to Washington D.C. to meet our legislatures. I missed the experience.”
“My reservations and tickets were canceled, and myself and the chapter suffered a financial loss because the tickets were non-refundable,” she added.
In addition, Song said, she spent time over the summer planning a leadership conference for FCCLA, and she now cannot attend it.
“When it disappears, it shows me how much FCCLA has benefited me,” she said. “The organization has helped guide me on a path I find interesting, and I found friends from across New Jersey through being an officer.”
“But the negotiations forbids me from taking part in the group, and I am forced to leave it,” she added. “It will also ultimately affect members who will not be able to experience FCCLA.”
The biggest source of frustration for the teachers in districts across the state, including Bridgewater-Raritan, is a law signed by former Gov. Chris Christie, effective June 28, 2011, that imposed several changes in the formula used to calculate teachers’ benefits administered by the state.
Chapter 78 also changes the manner in which the state-administered Health Benefits Programs operate and the levels of employee contributions.
Laura Kress, president of the BREA, said there was something published recently about the board of education possibly giving the union a fair agreement and the teachers refusing it.
“If that’s the message we want to put out there, we have nothing to be embarrassed about to get paid and for benefits,” she said. “I would make public what we are asking for and what we are getting paid because we feel you have a lot more to answer for.”
In a statement from the board of education, board member, and chair of the negotiating committee, Jeffrey Brookner said the ground rules of the negotiation prevent committee and board members from commenting on the contents of the negotiations. But, he said, a bargaining representative from the BREA was quoted in a news story about the contents of the negotiations.
“We do not agree with his characterization of the negotiations,” he said, declining to comment on the specifics of the comments. “We will provide more detailed comments in the future.”
“We look forward to what we hope will be a constructive meeting with the BREA Oct. 22,” he added.
Church Road resident, and 14-year teacher in the district, Claudia Brown said the district has always recognized teachers for advanced degrees, milestones of service and more.
“You have never failed to accept the accolades showered on the district,” she said. “But when it is time to put your money where your mouth is, you are silent. Your actions during the negotiations tell us we are not worth it.”
For Brown and many other teachers who spoke during the meeting, they are concerned about making a livable wage with the offer being given, while also having to handle benefits payments.
“Every person has their own personal struggles,” she said. “I remind you we are human beings, not textbooks you can discard or buildings that will sit quietly, we are the hardware of the district. We are simply asking for what we need to just survive.”
Jaclyn Kritzar, a teacher in the district for 17 years, said that at any given time, she has to hold down two or three additional jobs just to make ends meet.
“My take home pay has decreased, while needs have increased,” she said. “I am not working extra jobs to afford the finer things, but to afford healthcare.”
And while the contract is still in limbo, Kritzar said, the teachers are still there for the students.
“Let’s continue to be there for your children,” she said.
Teacher Cheryl Figliano provided the board with some visual examples of past paychecks, showing that her pay in September 2018 was more than $300 less than it was in September 2010.
“This is not sustainable for me,” she said. “I wonder if you have ever taken that kind of a pay cut. My health insurance is vital to the health and well being of my children, and, on average, my out-of-network copay for the year is enough to purchase a car.”
“It will not be sustainable if I am forced to pay greater out-of-pocket costs,” she added. “I have no more to give.”
Cambridge Lane resident Valerie Pierce, a parent in the district, said she moved her family to the district because of the school system.
“The school district we came from didn’t have the opportunities this district has,” she said. “My daughter is now starting eighth grade, and she loves school here, and it’s because of the people who work and teach my daughter.”
“I would hope you would value and respect that,” she added.
Kress said she wanted to clear up some misconceptions about the attitudes between the board education and the union.
“I think the board thinks this is just our back and forth as usual,” she said. “But we feel the relationship has been damaged, and I don’t know that it’s coming back. Maybe we can start over.”
“A living wage is key, and it’s true that no one is going to work for less money, we’re not going to volunteer,” she added. “What is it worth to you to have us volunteer our time to make sure we are contributing to making these kids awesome people?”
In addition, Kress said, she knows there is talk about how there is no money available, and that if the district wants to fix the schools and facilities that are falling apart, there is no money left for the teachers. But for example, she said, an estimate was given for redoing the windows at Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School 15 years ago, and it was rejected because of the high cost.
“You know that for 15 years, you have to pay us, and for 15 years the buildings need repair,” she said. “But poor planning doesn’t constitute an emergency on our part.”
“This has been going on for years, and now that we have no money to give back, we are trying to figure out what we do,” she added.
Parent Maria Elhadidi said her kids have gone through Van Holten Primary, Eisenhower Intermediate and Bridgewater-Raritan High School, and they couldn’t ask for better teachers.
“They are always there for us, and I’m ashamed at how we are treating these people,” she said. “This is the most important job in the community.”
“Every day our kids go to school and they come home safely, knowing more than they did when they left in the morning, and these people are why,” she added. “When are we going to wake up as a society and realize that this is our future, and they are growing our future. We need to pay these people what they deserve.”
Kress said she was starting to feel anger listening to teachers talking about all they had to do just to make ends meet, especially as negotiations continue to drag on.
“I hope the situation changes and that instead of yelling and screaming, we’re going to go along and stick to our guns, and in the end we’ll see how it works out,” she said.