ROXBURY, NJ – Warning that full contract negotiation between the Roxbury School Board and the district’s teachers’ union might not take place until June 2019 - due to mediation and fact-finding timeframes - board president Leo Coakley on Monday suggested representatives from both sides meet informally this week to “narrow areas of disagreement.”
Striking a conciliatory tone at a board meeting packed with Roxbury teachers and preceded by a teacher rally outside Lincoln-Roosevelt School, Coakley said he was hopeful about bridging the gap between the board and the Roxbury Education Association (REA) union.
“On a lot of the very basic issues I don’t think the REA and the board disagree,” Coakley said. “We need to raise the salaries of the lower steps … We need to get on with the negotiations to get there.”
About 500 people are represented by the REA. Their contract expired last summer, a pact that was approved in April 2016 after a year of dispute including rallies similar to the one that took place Monday.
The current contract wrangling went into mediation after negotiations, which began a year ago, got nowhere. There were audible gasps from the teachers in the audience Monday when Coakley discussed the expected timeframe.
“According to the mediator, the negotiations proceed to the next step of fact-finding,” he said. “According to the mediator, it will take about three to four months for a fact-finder to be assigned. The full fact-finding process could be expected to take somewhere between nine to 14 months which will bring us to June 2019.”
The Cost of Health Insurance
In addition to salaries, a major area of dispute is the way the new contract should deal with the sharing of health insurance costs under the state-administered health benefits program. This is commonly known as “Chapter 78,” a reference to that chapter in the 2011 state Pension and Health Benefits Reform law.
“When we started negotiations a year ago, we know that the health benefit costs in Chapter 78 would be a major topic,” Coakley said. “Currently, the district taxpayers pay about 80 percent of the district healthcare costs which have been rapidly increasing in recent years.”
He noted that Chapter 78 requires employees to “pay a portion of their premium cost based on their salaries.” It, along with a 2 percent tax levy cap imposed by the state, are supposed to help taxpayers, Coakley added.
He said that, even with a 2 percent cap, taxes provide the district with enough money to handle annual salary and benefit increases. New for this contract, he noted, is the ability to negotiate Chapter 78 provisions.
“I think the state dropped the ball with this one,” Coakley commented. “They were tied together and now they separated them. Shifting the health insurance burden back to the taxpayers is not the answer. The union and the district must work together to reduce the health benefit cost to both the taxpayers and employees.”
During the public portion of Monday’s meeting, REA President Cindy Knill read a statement that took issue with an April 11 press release from the school board. “Not only was it inaccurate, but it was incomplete, misleading and a complete misrepresentation of the bargaining process to date,” Knill said.
She contended the board’s proposed contract, while possibly reducing insurance premium payments, “dramatically increases our members’ out-of-pocket expenses, thereby diminishing our current level of health care benefits and shifting costs for our health care, not reducing it.”
Boosting Teacher Co-Pays While Hiring New Administrators
Knill said the board proposal would double the co-payment for office visits and generic drugs and “more than double” the co-pays for brand-name medications. It would also include a “significant increase in the co-pay for emergency room visits, a new co-pay of $100 for out-patient surgery and add an additional $20 co-pay for vision.”
She suggested hypocrisy was at play in the board, noting that - despite its plan to increase teacher contribution to health insurance costs - the board has given raises to some higher-level employees not represented by the REA and created several new, high-paid administrative jobs.
“I mean, we know that negotiations is supposed to be about give and take,” Knill said. “But never did we think that you would take everything away from us and give it to these needless, inflated, top-heavy positions.”
Knill’s comments, and those by others who spoke in favor of the REA, sparked applause and cheering from the audience in the packed room. However, some speakers - including Roxbury-Mount Arlington Consolidation Study Commission members Fran Day and Laurel Whitney - reminded the teachers that people not represented by unions are also struggling to afford health insurance. "The average taxpayer in Roxbury would love to have these benefits," commented Day.
Coakley, whose deceased wife, Rita, was a long-time teacher in the district, expressed empathy for the teachers’ financial situation. He responded to Knill’s statement by reiterating his belief that a meeting might help both sides get closer to common ground.
“We understand the relief from Chapter 78 and as I said in my update: This is a district and a taxpayer issue … So I’m hoping we can get together on that and take a harder look at what insurance changes would be acceptable to the REA and would save money. I think that may be something we can sit down on, even though we won’t sign off on it we can narrow it in as to what’s acceptable and maybe make some progress before the fact-finding.”