SOMERVILLE, NJ - The negotiating teams of the Somerville Education Association (SEA) and the Board of Education are scheduled to meet today with a state-appointed fact finder in a final effort to negotiate a settlement.
Teachers will rally outside the Somerville Middle School on West High Street between 5-6 p.m. after which the closed meeting is scheduled to begin.
This meeting marks the first mediation session with the fact finder in lieu of a formal fact finding session. The SEA, who represents nearly 300 teachers, secretaries, custodians, and education support professionals, have been bargaining with the Board for over a year and have been working under an expired contract since June 2017.
Somerville EA president, Patrick Frain, points to the quality staff Somerville currently maintains as evidence why a settlement is long overdue. “We are leaders and current award winners in many facets of the school experience, whether it’s academics, athletics, or extra-curricular activities,” he states.
Earlier this month, Somerville High School was recognized by U.S. News and World Reports as one of the top high schools in New Jersey and the current Somerset County Teacher of the Year, Michael Skomba, is among the faculty there.
“SEA members take their jobs very seriously, and do not expect to get rich in this line of work,” Frain continued. “However, we do expect to be treated fairly and respectfully as we exercise our right to negotiate a new agreement.”
At the root of the issue is the SEA’s steadfast determination to negotiate financial relief from Chapter 78, the 2011 law that imposed health benefits contributions on tens of thousands of school employees throughout the state. Under this law, educators began to see 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.
“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.”
Despite the delay, Frain says his team is energized by recent community support, as evidenced by the picketing outside of the schools and the capacity crowd at last week’s Board of Education meeting, and is ready for Thursday's mediation session, with dozens of educators and parents planning to gather outside of the West Cliff Street Board of Education offices to greet the mediator and cheer on the negotiations team.
“The SEA knows that this community sees us for the professionals that we are and for the important work that we do,” declared Frain. “Thankfully, they also see us as moms, dads, daughters, and sons who are simply trying to make a living while trying to make a difference. Unfortunately, up to this point, the Board has not.”