NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ – New Providence teachers have been without a contract since June 30. Several members of the New Providence Teachers’ Association attended the Thursday, July 26 Board of Education (BOE) meeting.

Salt Brook School Teacher James Vopal addressed the board’s “misconception” regarding job actions. On June 19, 2018, a mandatory meeting for the entire staff was called by Superintendent David Miceli. At that meeting was present Board President Adam Smith who stated that he was surprised by teachers’ job actions, Vopal stated. “Mr. Smith’s statement was a clear indication to me and the entire NP teaching staff that there is a misconception among the BOE members regarding job actions. I wish to set the record straight before the board and the public,” he said.

Vopal told the board that earlier in his career he had participated in job actions such as picketing outside the school or at town hall meetings. “I would like to make it perfectly clear that what we did as teachers was not job actions. We were working our contracted hours, and that is not a job action.” That is what we are required to do as stipulated in our contract, and we are fulfilling the terms of our contract, he explained.

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He pointed out that the administrators have recently negotiated their own contracts, while the teachers are without one.  “Should we not have the same rights?” he asked. We are walking into the buildings together in solidarity with our fellow colleagues. We are grown-ups in the field of education which is generally unionized. This should be business as usual, he said.

Vopal asked if the board members know how many teachers in the district can’t make ends meet financially, and therefore have to work two or three jobs. “I count myself in that group. I have a total of five jobs providing for my family of four and what works out as a cut to my pay in the last four years,” he said. “Have you had a cut in your pay every year for the last four years?” he asked.

Many teachers have not had a raise for five years, Vopal said. “Chapter 78 mandates that employees pay a percentage of their income for health insurance premiums. The percentage ranges from 3 percent to 35 percent, and it is never less than 1.5 percent of the employee’s base salary. When the employee’s salary rises the premium may jump to another level of premium sharing, resulting in any pay raise being reduced, or even decreased. This has happened to me and my family. Did this happen to the administrators?” he stated.

Furthermore, Vopal questioned why he should contribute more to the health benefits just because he makes more than another teacher. “I am not getting extra benefits for paying more. How is that fair?  What is fair – is having a staff pay a flat percentage based on what the board pays for healthcare per employee,” he stated. He noted that this is the practice in many districts but not in New Providence.

He suggested that pay raises should be done fairly and equitably going forward. If administrators get raises, so should teachers and other staff members. “Stop penalizing the great teachers that you are so blessed to work with here in New Providence. We are in this profession because we love what we do,” he said.

“Do what is right, and in good faith.”  Replenish what was lost when we agreed to help you out in 2011 so that job actions are not necessary, Vopal concluded.

“I don’t want to engage in a debate here tonight, but I can’t go without addressing to some of those comments that were made this evening,” Smith responded.

He pointed out that what is or is not a job action depends on the definition. No one is accusing teachers of not complying with their contractual agreement. However, it is fair to say that at the end of the year, teachers engaged in an effort “to make a statement,” he said. Smith listed several actions, such as walking into the school in a large group; cutting off help to students the moment when their contracted hours are over; not answering emails at night; and others.

“The notion that there have not been raises for years is an absolute fallacy,” Smith said. Those raises are documented for anyone to review, he added. He noted the cost of healthcare has risen for teachers, taxpayers and for everyone. “We can’t control the healthcare cost,” he said and added that this is a national issue and anyone in the workforce recognizes that. “The premiums are going up and up and up.”

Smith emphasized that the board is negotiating with the Teachers’ Association in good faith as well as in an equitable fashion and fairly. The average pay for teachers in this district is well within the market value in this state. “We pay equitably, we pay fairly,” he said.

The board and the association are scheduled to meet again in late August.