SPOTSWOOD, NJ - In a show of solidarity, Spotswood School District teachers and support staff attended the Tuesday, December 5 Board of Education meeting at the Spotswood High School Library en masse. Wearing "Keep Calm and Work On" t-shirts, a large majority of the 175 member staff sat in the gallery for the public portion of the monthly meeting.

As of July 1, 2017, the employees from teachers to support and office staff to custodians have been working without a contract after the written agreement between the Spotswood Board of Education and the Spotswood Education Association expired on June 30, 2017.

Negotiations between the two sides have been ongoing for the past 11 months.

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"The SEA and SBOE agreed to ask for and use a state appointed mediator to facilitate the negotiations process in April of 2017," explained Superintendent Graham Peabody via email. "After the last meeting with the mediator, it was recommended that the process move to a state appointed fact finder."

While neither side can legally speak of the exact details of the negotiations publicly, the two major issues at the center of the contract negotiations are salary and benefits.

"It was indicated to the SBOE that a fact finder would be assigned to the case and contact them within two to three months," Peabody continued. "As we prepare to meet with the fact finder, however, the two sides have agreed to keep talking in an attempt to find a resolution to this."

When Spotswood Board of Education President Dulce Branco-RIvera read a statement to the public, she announced that the first fact finding meeting would take place in March. The announcement of the month was met by audible groans from the gallery of educators.

However, despite the evident frustration on both sides during the meeting, the SBOE and the SEA continue to move forward to a resolution.

"This is what I wanted to tell you and this is from the heart," Branco-Rivera said, placing her prepared statement on the table. "There is no animosity between us (SBOE) and the union (SEA) or us and the people who are negotiating and we all have been negotiating in good faith. The union is responsible and required to negotiate well for you guys because that's their job. It is the job of the board to negotiate hard and in good faith to bring forth the needs of the district and the budget."

'We are not as far apart as the mediator made it sound and we are continuing to talk," Branco-Rivera continued. "We love our teachers. We love everybody on the board. There is nothing here except us just trying to maintain a line in order to make the budget work."

On Monday, December 4 teachers and support staff staged a job action outside all of the Spotswood School District's four schools, including the Schoenly School, the Appleby Elementary School, the Memorial Middle School and Spotswood High School, prior to their contractual start time. All of the teachers and staff entered the building at their designated times. The move brought the contract dispute to the attention of the parents in the district. Many parents were not aware of the fact that the staff began the 2017-18 school year without a contract. Some took to social media to voice their concerns in a closed Facebook group. A handful showed up to the December 5 board meeting to show support for the teachers.

In the open forum portion of the meeting, Spotswood Education Association President Jeff Michaels addressed the gallery and the board. The Spotswood High School Business, Vocational and Technology teacher indicated that progress in the initial negotiations last spring stalled in his opinion when former Superintendent Dr. Scott Rocco resigned his position to become the Superintendent of Schools in the Hamilton Township District. Former Spotswood School District Superintendent Dr. Anthony Vaz was tapped at Interim Superintendent when Rocco departed in May. Peabody was named by the board as superintendent in July.

"I believe both parties are negotiating in good faith and will continue to do so," Michaels said. "Being an educator in Spotswood is very special. It's not like most districts. It's hard to put into words. It's small, homey, warm. That's why a lot of us agree to stay here for lower salaries and less benefits than other districts."

According to data from the Taypayers Guide to Education, which is released annually by the State Department of Education, the median salary for teachers in Spotswood was $57,850 for the 2015-16 school year and $59,200 for 2016-17.

Dunellen teachers had a median salary of $52,850 last year while Highland Park teachers were paid an average of $61,907. South Amboy teachers received a median salary for the 2016-17 school year of $75,662. All four districts have comparable sized student bodies.

"Catching up to our peers, thanks to the last eight years and our wonderful leadership in Trenton is impossible," Michaels said. "But we are not asking to actually match what they're making. What we actually want is a good, healthy increase that we deserve."

Michaels indicated that job actions like the one on December 4 would continue periodically throughout the school year until a contract was agreed upon.

"I want to assure everybody," Michaels continued. "That the children are still our number one priority. We will never jeopardize their education."

"We are, and will continue, to work diligently to represent and balance both the needs of our staff and the needs of our community," Peabody responded when asked if there was any additional information he would like the public to be aware of.

The next scheduled meeting of the Spotswood Board of Education is set for Tuesday, December 19 at 7 p.m. The SBOE meets twice a month at the Spotswood High School Library. A schedule of the meetings can be found at the Spotswood School District website.