The members of the Summit Education Association would like to respond to Harry Olsen’s attack in his editorial “Summit Teacher’s Union Continues Intransigence.”  We were very disappointed to read Mr. Olsen’s comments. While we are sure that Mr. Olsen believes he is well intentioned it is important to point out the numerous factual errors that he stated in his editorial.

Mr. Olsen states, “Teachers have an unfair advantage at the bargaining table.” Governor Christie has legislated away our ability to collectively bargain for health insurance and introduced a 2% tax cap levy making it very difficult to negotiate a yearly increase that even matches the cost of inflation in New Jersey. The combined impact of the increase in health insurance contributions, the increase in pension payments, and the 2% tax cap levy is that Summit teachers are all but assured of seeing less take home pay each year for the foreseeable future. Does that sound like the teachers in Summit have an unfair advantage at the negotiating table?

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Mr. Olsen also claims that the SEA position is as follows, “Well either meet our demands, or school may just not open as scheduled.”  We challenge Mr. Olsen to provide evidence for this baseless claim. In reality, the members of the SEA worked hard to ensure a smooth start to the school year. These efforts were recognized and praised by the Superintendent Dr. Parker. For example, a dozen custodians worked through the Sunday of Hurricane Irene, leaving their own homes unattended. As always, teachers came into the schools early to set up classrooms and spent time over the summer preparing for new classes. All the members of the SEA have acted professionally despite the fact that we are working under an expired contract.

The SEA has never threatened to delay school or hold children as collateral. In fact, it is illegal for teachers to strike in the state of New Jersey. Furthermore, the teachers of Summit continue to go to work each and every day, provide the exceptionally high product that the administration, Board of Education, and people of Summit demand all while attempting to negotiate a new contract in good faith.

Mr. Olsen also states that during the negotiations of 2005 the SEA said, “The BOE is taking away our benefits” as a result of a co-pay increase. While Mr. Olsen is correct in the fact that SEA members picketed, we did so before school hours but did so to make the public aware that we were without a contract. At no point did any SEA official state this or direct our members to make such a ludicrous comment.

Mr. Olsen continues to make baseless claims regarding the current negotiations.  He has no direct knowledge of these negotiations as he is not a member of the Board of Education. Mr. Olsen claims that the SEA is making unrealistic demands which will result in larger class sizes and inevitable layoffs. Mr. Olsen should remember that PERC rules of confidentiality require that neither side share details in the media. The SEA takes great care to only communicate to its members what is legally appropriate during negotiations.

Mr. Olsen then attempts to divide the SEA by suggesting that the less senior teachers are not being represented and should stand up to the SEA before it is too late. This is an old, tired, and feeble attempt to weaken and divide a very united SEA. It will not work.

Overall Mr. Olsen’s information is outdated. For the past four contracts SEA members have been contributing to their health care premiums. Co-pays have been increased over the last two contracts. Mr. Olsen may be unaware that the 1.5% of salary contribution to healthcare has been recently replaced by state legislation that will require public employees to pay 20 – 30% of their premium costs within the next three years.

The SEA has never accused the Board of refusing to settle in order to profit from interest earned on unpaid raises. Our members also have savings accounts (although they are fairly empty) that pay almost no interest. It should also be noted that contrary to popular belief, Summit teachers are not the highest paid in Union County.

Meanwhile Trenton has returned approximately $1.2 million of the money lost in last year’s budget crisis to the Summit Board of Education. That, along with the income from the new healthcare premium law, gives the district a significant amount of money it did not have last year. Again, Mr. Olsen’s contention that the SEA negotiating position will lead to teacher layoffs is simply incorrect.

We wholeheartedly agreed with Mr. Olsen when he stated that, “Summit teachers as a whole are a great group of people who put in extra time, and great effort to help our children reach their educational potential.” These people are the Summit Education Association. 

Sadly Mr. Olsen quickly follows this compliment with, “However, the Union has kept them generally ‘in the dark’ about the financial realities of life.” On the contrary, Mr. Olsen, the SEA absolutely keeps its members informed about the financial realities of life. The reality is that due to recent legislation the teachers of Summit may see less and less in take home pay for years to come. That is the financial reality of being a teacher these days despite all the wonderful accomplishments of our students.

The last statement that Mr. Olsen made that we would like to comment on is, “And remember, this is the same Union that refused to reduce salary increases by even one penny when the State suddenly cut Summit’s aid by over $2 million about one year ago, while other Unions in our geographic area did make concessions – this to me was a shameful act showing a lack of a ‘partnership’ with the families of Summit.” I agree with Mr. Olsen that the SEA did refuse to take a pay-cut and here are the reasons why.

1) If we agreed to a pay-cut during the previous contract, the agreement would be legally re-opened resulting in staff having to pay the 1.5% of our salary healthcare contribution a year early. Our members could not afford to reduce their salaries and increase their deductions.

2) A pay freeze or pay cut even for a year can cost the teacher tens of thousands of dollars in lifetime earnings as it would affect their career ending salary thereby lowering their pension.  

3) While SEA members are empathetic to all members of society who are struggling due to the poor economy the reality is that teachers are also struggling and certainly were not the cause of the economic meltdown.

Summit schools are a great place to work thanks to the quality staff and the community who supports them.

Summit Education Association