To the Editor,
We are writing on behalf of the more than 280 Somerville Education Association (SEA) members working in our schools. We are proud of the work that we do, and we are the reason that our schools celebrate notable achievements and our students’ goals and dreams are often fulfilled.
We would like to call attention to a pervasive problem that affects public school employees here in New Jersey. We may be educators working to enrich the lives of our students, but we are also mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, and working women and men who simply want to thrive in middle class America. Unfortunately, several years ago, our Legislature—under the influence of then-governor Chris Christie—passed P.L. 2011, Chapter 78, that implemented mandatory insurance deductions for each of us while also increasing our pension contributions. This set off what can only be described as an ongoing set of unintended consequences for us and our families.
Under Chapter 78, we each saw significant reductions in our take-home pay, despite receiving an increase in salary. The legislators who passed this law were under the false impression—as were we—that this legislation would “sunset”, and the impact would be minimal. We can assure you that just the opposite is happening. Many of us are working two to three jobs just to make ends meet; we can no longer volunteer our time to assist our students because we need to clock in elsewhere; we cannot afford to send our children to college—adding to the ongoing college debt crisis; and, in some cases, we have lost our homes because they are no longer affordable with our reduced income. Quite simply, this legislation left us with less take home pay than we had four, five, or even six years ago. We are doing the same jobs, with a raise that is only on paper, not in our pockets. This trend cannot continue.
As union members, we have long believed that compensation and benefits are bargaining issues. In fact, many of us gave up compensation and other perks to negotiate the level of benefits we once held because the importance of affordable, quality health care cannot be minimized. Without access to affordable, quality health care and without taking measures to reverse the effects of lost gains on our salaries, the schools in New Jersey will lose the ability to attract and retain the best educators for our children. If we don’t take action now, and find ways to provide affordable, quality health care for public school employees, we jeopardize the future of those very institutions. Moreover, the rising costs of higher education coupled with the recurring loss of take-home pay are keeping qualified college students from entering the profession.
That’s why we are standing firm as we negotiate a new contract with the Somerville Board of Education. We are tired of losing ground, paying more than we should, and—most of all—we are tired of the board balancing its budget on the backs its employees. More importantly, this is an issue of respect for the people who have dedicated their lives to others. Career educators are falling behind when compared to similarly educated professions, and it simply has to stop. It’s time to level the playing field, and—until that happens in the Legislature—we will not settle for anything less than the Chapter 78 relief that we so desperately deserve at the table.
Somerville Education Association