The ongoing dispute between the Board of Education and the Berkeley Heights Education Association is solely due to the distribution of the total salary increase that both parties have agreed to last October. The community needs to understand that the dispute is not about supporting or not supporting the teachers and other employees. Rather it is a question of how broadly to support the teachers. In the last negotiation the Board was pushing for a distribution of the salary increase that would support the greatest number of teachers rather than perpetuating the concentration of the increase into a small segment of the staff.
I served on the Board for over 12 years and was on their negotiating committee most of that time, including several years as Chairman. In addition, in the early part of my professional career as a classroom teacher in a school district larger than Berkeley Heights, I served 4 terms as Association President and was also the chief negotiator. During my more than 20 years as a Business Administrator for three different school districts, I was directly involved with contract negotiations and in the construction and modification of salary guides, so the issue of salary distribution is something of which I am quite familiar.
I am not privy to the respective positions of the Board and the BHEA in their current negotiations. My former colleagues on the Board have not shared any information about this with me, nor have I requested any. What I am hoping to do is help the public to better understand the nature of the problem that is and has been an issue in countless numbers of school districts from the time that collective bargaining for school employees became a reality.
As an example, during the 12 years I spent as a teacher my district's salary guide contained 13 steps. As salaries began to increase, a significant problem began to emerge each year as to the amount paid to persons who were on the 12th step and would move to step 13. It just so happened that I left teaching for my first administrative position at the end of my 12th year. Had I stayed as a teacher in that district, my raise to the final step would have been just under 30%.
What was occurring was the two parties would agree to an across-the-board increase. That meant that every salary step would receive the same % of increase. This would include the increment that exists between each step. If people on the final step received the same % it meant that the gap between that step and the next-to-last step would get larger each year. The contract settlements are based on the total dollars being paid to the Association employees and must be distributed to all the steps. If some people are getting increases that are 2, 3 or 4 times what the overall settlement is, it means that the rest of the employees on the guide must take less. One strategy used in many districts was to add a step between the last and next-to-last step to lessen the impact of people getting to the maximum amount. Therefore, many guides contain 20 or even more steps.
During the last two settlements with the BHEA, the Board that I was part of, took the position that there was a need to rein in the huge salary increases that some people would get if the status quo remained. The last year of the previous contract (2014-15) had 20 steps. With that guide a teacher at the first step (BA degree) would get an increment raise of $500, while someone on step 17 would receive $6,372 or more than 12 times that amount; while someone going to the maximum step would receive $7,572 or 15 times that amount! These increases are paid at the expense of less experienced teachers who are forced to accept minimal salary adjustments.
The Board in its negotiations for the 2015-18 contract, as they had done for the prior contract, tried to limit these very large increases so that a greater number of people could receive more dollars in their paychecks. The overall settlement for 2017-18 was a 2.3% raise. There were and still are major disparities with the salary increases paid to employees. In 2017-18 teachers who were on the first step received a raise of $952 which was 1.76%. By contrast, people going to the next to last step received $6,665 which was 8.07% and those who reached the maximum step received $8,504 which was 9.5%. No teacher at steps 1-15 received more than $2,000 so it was not just the newly hired teachers who were affected. An additional step was added to the guide so that there are now 21 steps. The original position of the BHEA in those negotiations would have made these discrepancies even worse than they are.
The structure of salary guides is a result of decades of negotiation and, in most cases, the lack of foresight by both parties as to significant inequities in compensation. The idea of a guide itself is a part of the problem. It is not unreasonable to pay someone with more experience more than a brand-new employee, but I'm not sure of the logic that says someone with 15+ years of experience is suddenly entitled to a raise that that is four, five or six times or more than that of his/her colleagues. This is not unique to Berkeley Heights, but to simply allow these massive differences in wage increases to continue is unacceptable.
In summary, we have an excellent school system and a great staff and it's important that within the confines of what we can and what we are allowed to pay our employees, that it is critical that we not let a handful of people consume such a large a piece of the overall settlement, at the expense of everyone else. There will still be employees getting a very substantial increase, well above what most of their colleagues will receive, however to not continue to try to make things fairer for the greatest number of employees would be a mistake.