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Paterson Teachers Protest Over Third Year Without a New Labor Contract

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PATERSON, NJ – About 400 city teachers rallied at Wednesday night’s Board of Education meeting at the Kennedy High School complex, protesting because they are in their third year without a new labor contract.

Chanting phrases like “Settle now!” and holding protest signs, the raucous crowd of educators complained that they have not received a pay increase since the 2009-2010 school year. Several teachers spoke during the meeting’s public portion.

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“We are asked to do more and more and more with no raise,’’ Toni Gennarelli, a teacher at School 5, told city school officials. “We have to do all you ask with no raise. It’s disrespect and it’s disgusting.’’

Another teacher, Dawn Uttel from School 12, said many of her colleagues spend between $200 and $1,000 a year from their own pockets on school supplies. “The money we choose to spend is the money we are losing in our paychecks,’’ said Uttel, who was named one of the district’s teachers of the year in 2012. “This is causing extreme hardship with so many people.’’

More than half the school board members expressed “solidarity” with the teachers, blaming the New Jersey Department of Education for the protracted contract negotiations. “I’m with you 100 percent,’’ said Commissioner Corey Teague. Some board members even offered to accompany the teachers on a possible protest trip to Trenton. “We’re not against you, we’re with you,’’ said Commissioner Wendy Guzman.

But not all the school board members were so willing to express absolute support for the union. Commissioner Errol Kerr said he would like to “adequately compensate every teacher in Paterson,’’ but he also said the district had financial limitations. “We must consider the ability to pay,’’ said Kerr. He asked the teachers to think of the district’s students and to “match their needs with your needs.’’

Commissioner Jonathan Hodges said the status of the contract rests in the governor’s hands and he asserted that some city teachers voted for Chris Christie for governor four years ago. Hodges also told the union members that he was “not in solidarity with you outside the classroom,’’ especially on issues “to better serve our kids.’’

The union and the school district currently are at odds over an experimental program that provides children with breakfast after the school day starts. The union has filed a grievance, asserting teachers are entitled to a stipend for supervising the meals, according to a story on northjersey.com.

In an interview during the rally, Gene Harvell, the second vice-president of the union, the Paterson Education Association, said the two sides were in the fact-facting stage of negotiations, one of the final steps before an impasse could be declared. Harvell said the state’s is  pushing to include a merit pay system in the contract, something he said officials have pushed harder for after it was part of the settlement with teachers in Newark, New Jersey’s other school district that’s under Trenton’s control.

Paterson Public Schools’ spokeswoman Terry Corallo declined to respond to the teachers’ protest. “It’s a contract issue, therefore I cannot comment,’’ she said.

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