MILLBURN, N.J. — The Millburn Board of Education on Monday broke its silence on the issue of protracted contract negotiations with the Millburn Education Association (MEA). The parties have been in negotiations for nearly a year, failing to reach an agreement at a second meeting with the state-appointed mediator on May 29.

In a public statement, Philip Choong, chair of the negotiations committee, said the board has made every effort to reach a compromise. He pointed to the MEA, the union representing 650 teachers, secretaries and paraprofessionals, for making demands that, “exceed the financial abilities of the district and are fiscally and operationally unreasonable.”

He added that the board had increased its salary proposal “significantly” at its last meeting, but that the Association had “blatantly rejected such compromise and instead raised its initial salary proposal, further separating the parties’ positions.” 

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The MEA disputes the statement and is preparing a rebuttal. 

The failure to reach an agreement has led the board to seek the appointment of a “Fact-finder,” who will make inquiries, conduct hearings if necessary and, based on the facts emerging out of the review, make a recommendation regarding the terms of the settlement to the parties. 

The negotiation committee’s statement, prepared in conjunction with the board’s legal counsel, marks the first time the board commented on the sensitive matter of contract negotiations, amid mounting pressure from parents, students and teachers to settle the contract. 

Teachers have been working on an expired contract since June 30, 2017 and have been protesting outside schools and the town’s Education Center for months. 

Some parents in the district have grown increasingly worried that low teacher morale due to the stalled negotiations is beginning to impact students. Teachers ceased volunteering their time outside contract hours. High school juniors report that they are having trouble getting teachers to definitively respond to their requests for college recommendations, though the MEA has tried to provide assurances that the letters will be written at the appropriate time.

At Monday’s meeting, Board President Berylin Bosselman reiterated the board’s commitment to settle the contract. “We have heard from the public and teachers and from students and we, just as much as anybody, want to come to some sort of agreement,” she said.

 “We have come to the table, we have participated in multiple hours of negotiation and, as always, we have wanted for our teachers and students, the most wonderful educational culture that we can possibly have. It has always been our position to have the greatest teachers around. Our teachers have consistently been some of the highest paid teachers in the United States,” said Bosselman.

The median teacher salary in Millburn stood at $85,550 in 2015-16, according to NJ Department of Education data, the highest in Essex County and ranking 13th out of nearly 650 school districts in New Jersey or at the top 2%. New Jersey teacher salaries ranks sixth in the country.

Lois Infanger, president of the MEA disputed the board’s account of the negotiations process during the public comment session of the meeting. 

She said that she believed that the parties had made progress at the meeting on May 29 and was, “very surprised” when the board suddenly decided to end the meeting and opted to appoint a fact-finder.

She said the board’s salary proposal was well below county average. In an interview with TAPinto Millburn, she said she was referring to the average contract settlement rates as reported by organizations such as the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and the New Jersey State Board Association (NJSBA).

Teachers’ contract settlement rates that cover the 2017-18 year have reported an average 2.59% increase in salaries in 2017-18 in Essex County, according to data from the New Jersey School Board’s Association. The rate climbed to 2.72% in the 2018-19 year.

Infanger denied that the MEA increased its salary proposal as stated by Choong. She told TAPinto that the union had merely “rearranged” the structure of the salary proposal.

Out of 199 districts where teachers’ contracts have expired on June 30, 2017, 157 reached a successor agreement and are pending ratification, according to the NJSBA. Millburn district is not alone in failing to settle teachers’ contract this late into the school year. Six districts have not yet reached an agreement for contracts which expired on June 30, 2016, or earlier.

Teachers waiting for the settlement say that morale is the worst it has ever been. Michael Paul, who has taught at the Millburn High School for 13 years, says that the important distinction that observers fail to make when talking about teachers’ salaries is that many teachers are taking home less than they made five or six years ago. “Our take-home pay, at least for me personally, has not changed in five years because, as you all know, the cost of health insurance has gone up dramatically. As an economics teacher I will add in that with inflation of 2.5% over the past year, (and) one or two percent over the past five years, our real pay — at least for me — has gone down about 8 % to 10%,” said Paul at the meeting. “As a parent of two small children trying to support them in the same way you support your kids. I need to be able to support them. And when my take home pay stays the same, paycheck after paycheck, for five straight years. it hurts.”