WAYNE, NJ – The Wayne Township Council Chambers was painted red Thursday as just about every seat held teachers from Wayne, and across the state, all wearing their union colors and holding signs that stated: “WE ARE ALL EDA FERRANTE”

The educators were at the Wayne Board of Education (BOE) meeting to support embattled Wayne Education Association (WEA) President Eda Ferrante, who was ordered to report back to the classroom as a full-time history teacher.

For the last four years Ferrante has been the full-time release president for the WEA, handling personnel and union matters instead of teaching in a classroom. She was paid her full salary by the BOE, but 75% of her this was reimbursed to the district by the WEA. The district also paid for their share of Ferrante’s benefits.  This arrangement was agreed to as part of the Wayne Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and has been a standard practice in Wayne and in a handful of New Jersey districts where union leaders have responsibility for representing hundreds of individual members in the workplace.

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However, on August 22 of this year, the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division issued a decision on the matter of full-time release in regard to a lawsuit brought against the Jersey City Board of Education.

“The court determined that this provision was void and unenforceable,” Wayne BOE Attorney John Geppert read from the same prepared statement on the matter he did at the BOE’s previous meeting on September 5. "The appellate division found that the statue did not authorize the board to pay salaries and benefits of the association president and his designee while they devoted their entire work time to the business and affairs of the union.” 

“As a published appellate division case, this decision applies statewide,” Geppert concluded.

In response to the ruling, a decision was made by the Wayne school district, to send Ferrante back to a classroom to fill the assignment of another teacher currently out on leave. 

That decision, union representatives say, was premature and “draconian.” Saying that the NJEA, the statewide teacher’s union that both the WEA and the Passaic County Education Association (PCEA) fall under, has already filed documents to suspend the lower court decision until the New Jersey Supreme Court can consider it. 

At the crux of the union’s argument, according to Christy Kanaby, associate director of public relations for the NJEA, is a misstep by the lower court “because boards of education have the broad authority to fix the terms of compensation through collective bargaining unless otherwise limited by statute.”

With more than 100 educators in the room, including several of NJEA’s top leaders, Marie Blistan, Sean Spiller, and Sue Butterfield, and the meeting open for public comment, it was the union’s turn to be heard.

Citing a recent report in Education Weekly that found that Wayne Valley and Wayne Hills High Schools rank in the top 20% in the nation Blistan suggested that “there is a reason for that,” pointing to the education behind her. “We’re also ranked as the number one and strongest public sector union in the United States. I saw the rise and strength of the union at the same time that I saw the rise and strength of our public education system.” 

“Our children are number one. Not number Two. Not number three. I ask you very respectfully to please consider the information and do what is right for this district and for our kids,” she finished in a plea to the Board to take action.

If it hadn’t been said before it was Spiller who worked to explain the importance of having a union leader on hand to assist in matters of consequence in the workplace. “Having someone who has the time to solve the issues that we have in our district, to make sure we have people who can focus on the jobs that they need to do with our kids every day, is a good thing for all of us,” he said.

“This is not just about a union president not being available to her members, this is about all of the things she does on a daily basis that makes the process smooth. You need the union,” Butterfield said, building off of Spiller’s previous statement. “Let’s support your members in making the best situation possible for your students to learn.”

For their part, when the individual board members spoke each seemed to echo similar pro-education and pro-children statement that the union leaders had just given. Their solution, without taking official action, is to sit down with the union for further discussion. There are solutions, several stated, but none know what those solutions were.

Finding a local solution might be critical in any future positive relationship between the teachers and the BOE as the legislative body is,“too often, being antagonistic toward the educators of this district,” according to local union leader Dennis Carrol.

“Simply stated, the educators of this district are losing faith in the ability of this board and the superintendent to run this district in the best interest of the educational community here in Wayne,” Carroll said. 

“Ultimately it was a legal decision. It’s not the WEA’s fault, it’s not the District’s fault, but it is a difficult situation that we face. It came upon us. It wasn’t planned. I think it caught everyone by surprise,” Toback said, speaking last to bring discussion on the matter to a close. 

According to Blistan, she plans to meet with Toback on Friday to further discuss the matter.

This is an evolving story, TAPinto Wayne will provide follow-up on this important issue.

Steve Lenox contributed to this story.