NEWTON, NJ - Teachers and members of the Newton Education Association gathered outside the Board of Education office Tuesday night in hopes of getting answers to their questions about their contract negotiations.

On Sunday, Oct. 11, the NEA published an ad in the New Jersey Herald regarding the ongoing contract negotiations between the Newton Board of Education and the members of the NEA association.

In an open letter published by the NEA on their website, there were many questions about salaries. One in particular was why the superintendent received a higher salary and higher bonuses than the teachers in the district.

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Others included questions that asked why teachers got paid the lowest salary when the students in our district have the second highest SAT scores of any school district in Sussex County. Newton teachers have the lowest starting salary in the county and the second lowest average salary in the county.

When last they met on Sept. 30, the union, comprised of about 250 members from Merriam, Halsted and Newton High School, asked for a mediator to become involved in the contract negotiation process. While a mediator had not been named as of Monday, the Board of Education tried to answer some of the questions the NEA presented to them at the meeting on Tuesday.

The NEA’s questions and the Board of Education’s responses are as follows:

  1. Why did Newton’s superintendent receive bonuses for accomplishments that are part of the job of being a superintendent in the first place? 
    1. This would be a great question to ask the Governor and former Commissioner of Education who put salary cap and merit goal regulations in place against the objections of the New Jersey School Boards Association.  They resulted in an eight percent cut to our superintendent’s pensionable salary and all merit goals have been approved by the Department of Education.  Advocacy from other groups to repeal the regulations would be greatly appreciated. 
  2. Why did Newton’s business administrator receive a $10,194 raise for this year? 
    1. The actual raise was $2,784. The remaining salary difference from last year was not an additional increase: it was due to rolling existing longevity ($5,250), travel ($1,200) and communications ($960) stipends into the base and eliminating them from the contract.  Rolling longevity into the salary base has been proposed to the Association during the past two contract negotiations and was rejected each time.
  3. Why does the Board Secretary who makes $141,967 a year have a full time assistant who makes $80,631? 
    1. The Board Secretary is also the School Business Administrator with a job description that goes above what the typical person in that role handles. She saves the district well beyond the cost of an assistant … expenses that would otherwise be directed to various leadership, managerial, and contracted services.
  4. Why does our Business Administrator pay a private bus company $380 instead of paying a district employee $75 or our district bus driver $90 in overtime?
    1.  The central office regularly hires district employees to drive buses.  Occasionally, there are no district employees qualified, willing, or available to drive.
  5. Why have the Newton administrators received an average increase of over $4,500 each year over the last three years? 
    1. The average annual salary increase for the six administrators who stayed in the same role from 2011-12 to 2014-15 was $2,293.
  6. Why did the Board of Education pay more money for a lawyer to negotiate with district secretaries than they did for the total raise for all the secretaries? 
    1. The total raise for secretaries from 2014-2017 if all remain in their positions will be $46,080.  The cost for the negotiations attorney was $10,499 and only became necessary in response to the Association’s decision to bring their own representative to the table.
  7. Why is the Board spending the money to go to court to fight a decision when an arbitrator already ruled against them? 
    1. Actually, the arbitrator ruled in favor of the Board on the secretarial grievance on overtime pay. Their Association chose to file legal action to pursue it further.
  8. Why do Newton teachers have the lowest starting salary, second lowest average salary, and lowest dollar increase over the past three years in the county? 
    1. Salary guides are recommended by the Association, so they could have suggested a higher starting salary.  Average salaries are determined largely by years of experience, so a less experienced staff typically has a lower average salary.  39% of Association members have been here less than 5 years. Salary comparisons presented by the Association included only 9 of the 25 districts in the county...why?  A more reasonable comparison would be with similar districts around the state, not just wealthier communities in Sussex County.

Approximately 70 teachers attended the meeting.  Nearly all wore yellow question mark pins and held large yellow question mark signs in the front of the Board of Education building. “The question mark is like our theme or our symbol,” said a teacher who wished to remain unnamed. “We have a lot of questions and so we want some answers.”

During the public portion of the meeting, teachers were given the opportunity to share their opinions. Members of the NEA that spoke included, NEA Vice President Jean Perrier, Steve Runske, Karen Mazur, Kate Adam, Yvonne LaForge, Andy Iliff and Wendy Whipple. Comments were also made by Karen Kitchell. Jake Mull, NEA President, was not present at the meeting due to a previous teaching commitment according to teachers present.

Perrier said, “Education should not be about saving money, but spending money wisely.” She continued, “Our staff makes certain that no students fall through the cracks and our students work harder than they ever thought they possibly could. We help our students develop pride- Newton pride and to be respectful. Many people always ask us ‘Why stay in Newton?’ We stay because we believe, we work and we live, in this community and we believe in the students in our district. This is where you should invest your money- we are an investment. You have a dedicated staff in front of you that works extremely hard, beyond the capacity, even though we bring home less pay than we did years ago. By refusing to reasonably negotiate with the NEA you are failing to recognize our unparalleled dedication to the children of this community.”

Runske touched upon that same question that so many people ask teachers, “Why do you stay? I can’t speak for everyone else. I can only speak for myself but I stay because I love and respect my colleagues and because I love the children I teach. They are my life, they are my reason for getting up in the morning and I love this community.”

LaForge commented on the response of the board that the NEA should talk to their Governor about why the superintendent is receiving his bonuses. She made the board aware that every one of her colleagues has received eight, 13, 14, and some even higher of a percentage decrease in salary over the last three years. “I am currently making six thousand less per year than I was three years ago.”

Superintendent Dr. Greene responded. “If we’re talking about employee benefit contributions, I am making those contributions also.”  Laforge countered with the fact that she does not receive a bonus to make up for it.  

Iliff and Whipple had similar questions in regards to the information that was provided by the board. “Median and average are two very different words,” said Iliff, “From a mathematical standpoint I can tell you they are very different, because that is what I do.” It seemed that when compiling data, the board gathered information on the “average salary” for a teacher instead of the “median salary” of a teacher.

Whipple questioned the response the Board of Education gave for why Newton teachers have the lowest starting salary in the county.  The board responded that “a more reasonable comparison would be with similar districts around the state, not just wealthier communities (Sparta) in Sussex County.”

Whipple countered saying, “Every teacher that is working in Sussex County has the same cost of living as one another.”

A community member, Kitchell, spoke about the contract. “You have to give it to get it. The board and the NEA need to come together.” said Kitchell. 

The contract talks began last December.  The current contract is due to expire on June 30. If there is no new agreement prior to that the teachers will be working under the terms and conditions of the current contract until an agreement is reached.  At that time, any increase in pay or change to benefits are retroactive.