SOMERVILLE, NJ - The stand-off between the borough’s school board and teachers’ union continues, despite the efforts of a fact finder who met with both sides Thursday night for four hours at the Board of Education offices on West High Street.
Outside on the sidewalk in front of the board offices at the Somerville Middle School, dozens of teachers and parents hoisted home made signs in support of the 280 members of the Somerville Education Association.
On Friday, many of those same parents will gather on the sidewalk across the street from the Van Derveer School on Route 28 to continue showing support for the SEA.
Thomas D. Hartigan, a longtime fact finder with the state Public Employment Relations Commission, spent four hours shuttling between the two sides that were camped out in separate rooms, carrying proposals and counter proposals, but neither side was willing to concede, according to Denise Lang, a chemistry teacher at Somerville High School who is a member of the SEA negotiating committee.
The sides did not meet face-to-face, but did agree to further fact-finding meetings. No dates have been set, according to Lang.
The SEA, whose members include teachers and support staff, has been working without a contract since July 2017. It is the second time in the last five years that the SEA has worked on an expired contract.
The SEA is determined to negotiate financial relief from Chapter 78, the 2011 state law that imposed health benefits contributions on tens of thousands of school employees throughout the state, according to Patrick Frain, SEA president.
Educators have seen significant reductions in their take-home pay, despite receiving increases in salaries, in many cases netting less than they did four, five, or even six years ago, according to Frain.
“We have long believed that compensation and benefits are bargaining issues, and many of us gave up salary raises and other perks to negotiate the level of benefits we once held because of the importance of affordable, quality health care for all is vital to a thriving middle class,” Frain said. “It’s time to level the playing field and—until that happens in the Legislature—we will not settle for anything than the Chapter 78 relief that we so desperately deserve at the table.”
Other school districts in Somerset County and surrounding counties have granted teachers some relief from Chapter 78, according to Lang.
“One of our teachers stood up at last week’s board meeting and said that he was now making $5,000 less in take home pay than he was eight years ago,” she said. “People just can’t continue to support their families like that.
“I have never been so disrespected as a professional in my life,” Lang added, “while continuing to do everything I can for my students.
“I am 55 years old and I am begging for pennies,” Lang said.