CHATHAM TOWNSHIP, NJ - On Monday evening, the Board of Education of the Chathams approved a Memorandum Agreement with the district’s Association of Chatham Teachers and Secretaries (or ACTS).  The contract’s duration is from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2013.

In his opening remarks regarding the motion, Board President Stephen Barna stated that “this is certainly a critical issue,” especially in light of the daunting fiscal challenges school districts face resulting from Governor Chris Christie’s massive budget cuts earlier this year.  According to President Barna, one of the contract’s provisions stipulates a slight increase in teachers’ hourly rates at 2.95% this year but is subsequently reduced to 2.2% for the 2011-12 school year and 2% for 2012-13.

Other features of the contract include professional growth measures whereby the Board will pay the full cost for two work-related courses per year for technical employees, said Barna.  For all employees, a bonus of $200 will be granted for those who do not use any allotted sick days, and $500 will be provided to those who do not use any allotted sick and personal days. 

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Although the motion passed convincingly by a 5-2 vote, the Board’s members expressed a constant theme: the need to confront the dire financial challenges that lay ahead without compromising the educational integrity of Chatham’s school district.  Board member Matthew Gilfillan declared the “sacrifice in terms of where we are and going forward is not over.”  He conceded that “the onus…to cut costs” will continue and further challenge the district to not “put the educational experience at risk” for students.

Fellow Board member Alan Routh agreed with Mr. Gilfillan’s assessment but was more vocal in his concerns that the contract will make it difficult to maintain or improve the quality of education “from a financial perspective.”  He noted that the Board has the funds to meet the current salary increase of 2.95% but said the “subsequent two years are problematic” because those increases “are essentially the same as the 2% budget cap.”  He said the district incurs other expenses --“Special Education is a case in point”-- that exceed the budget cap, and therefore “this agreement…though it sounds it is at the cap rate…is going to be economically challenging and we’ll have a budget gap more than likely” because of those other costs. 

Chairman of the negotiating committee, Jonathan Chatinover, stated that the contract “is a fair one” but admitted that “in deciding to vote I was conflicted about some things.”  He said that subsequent to the agreement, ACTS is currently contesting the 1.5% payroll contribution their members will have to make to their health insurance plans.  Mr. Chatinover maintained that the Board had already budgeted in the increase when the agreement was negotiated and finalized.  While praising the work and effort of Chatham’s teachers, he said that “so long as that [issue of payroll contribution] is up in the air, I have a very tough time voting for this agreement.”  He ultimately voted no.    

Board member Al Burgunder sarcastically asked if anyone from ACTS was present because he wanted to congratulate ACTS on negotiating “a very good contract.”  Mr. Burgunder said he was very disappointed with the outcome because of “serious budget issues” going forward.   He also emphasized that the “pressure is going to be intense in the next couple of years” due to less state aid and less revenues from property taxes. 

President Barna declared that “our teachers are significant contributors” in providing quality education to Chatham’s students, and while he recognized his fellow Board members’ concerns regarding future financial challenges, he stated that, “I have no question in my mind in acknowledging” that the contract will achieve that objective.  He confidently stated that the Board and the teachers “will find a way to make it work” because “we have been innovators in the past.” 

Board member Alan Routh asked Superintendent James O’Neill how the contract compares to previous agreements in Chatham and those currently being negotiated in school districts across New Jersey.  Concerning historical contracts, O’Neill stated that for the last three agreements stretching back at least ten years, the average increase for salaries exceeded 4%.  “In that regard,” said O’Neill, “significant change in the dynamics of the finances” of the present settlement has been achieved.

As for comparison with other districts, O’Neill told the Board, “It’s hard to tell if you’re more at the front end” of these agreements.  He mentioned that the School Board Association “put out an indication that recent settlements were averaging 1. 9%” but O’Neill stated that that number was “distorted to the extent that a number of districts” froze their employees’ salaries “in an effort to rehire teachers that had been let go” resulting from state cutbacks or failed budgets.