No signs of a deal for Washington Twp. teachers

Dolores Morris marched with about 150 others outside a school board meeting.
Dolores Morris marched with about 150 others outside a school board meeting. (ANDREW SEIDMAN / Staff)
Posted: April 04, 2013

The Washington Township school board and teachers' union are mired in a nearly three-year-long contract dispute, with no signs of reconciliation.

The teachers, represented by the 850-member Washington Township Education Association, say the Board of Education is sitting on a pool of untapped money accrued through reduced payroll and budget surpluses, even as their paychecks have shrunk because they are contributing more to their health insurance plans.

But the board says that money must be budgeted for programs like Advanced Placement classes and state-mandated programs. Moreover, the board contends the union is living in a pre-Gov. Christie world, back when property tax caps were set at 4 percent. It says the implementation of a 2 percent cap in July 2010 has stretched its budget thin.

Efforts to achieve a contract have led to heated and emotional board meetings, the opening of the union's "bargaining crisis center" across the street from Washington Township High School, and a lawsuit over some teachers not writing student recommendations for college.

And even as the end of the school year nears, the union and the school board appear miles apart over benefits and wages.

"If we were to make some agreement for the amount they're looking for, we'd have to raise class sizes, raise taxes - which would go up for a vote - and get rid of nontenured teachers," Kurt Snyder, the board's president, said in an interview. "It would destroy the district."

The Washington Township Public School District is not the only district trying to hash out a new deal. Of the nearly 600 school districts in the state, 82 are negotiating new contracts, including 17 in Gloucester, Camden, and Burlington Counties, according to the latest available data compiled by the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Twenty-one of the districts have contracts that expired in 2011 or earlier but are continuing to work under those terms until new contracts are reached. Contracts in four districts - including the Washington Township Public School District - expired in 2010 or earlier.

In the 2012-13 academic year, teachers received an average raise of 2.4 percent throughout Gloucester County, according to the association. Neither the Washington Township board nor the union would say what offers were on the table.

The tax levy makes up $76 million of the $143 million budget, Snyder said. Salaries and benefits consume 80 percent of it. "There's no way [the board] can give a 3.5 percent raise" given those constraints, he said.

At issue are the board's $5.8 million surplus and $6 million saved since 2010 through staff retirements. Snyder said the surplus must be factored into this year's budget as a revenue line item and is not "cash on hand." The $6 million is likewise unavailable because it is used to fund class programs, he said.

Camy Kobylinski, the union's president, contended the board can continue to fund programs and settle the contract. "We are not in dire straits financially," she said.

In the months before and after the contract expired in June 2010, the two sides bargained face-to-face before reaching an impasse in late July. A Public Employment Relations Commission-appointed mediator held three sessions in 2011 to no avail. A PERC-approved "fact-finder" held a hearing in May 2012 but has yet to issue his nonbinding report.

In September, the board filed suit against the teachers' union after it voted to stop writing letters of recommendation for college-bound seniors. The decision "has resulted, and will continue to result, in immediate, substantial and irreparable injury" to the board, the school district, and students, the board wrote in its complaint.

"Colleges and universities will deny student applications for admission and financial aid" without those letters, it said, adding that the board knew of at least one student who would be ineligible for a scholarship if he did not submit his application by the Oct. 1 due date.

On Sept. 28, Gloucester County Superior Court Judge Eugene McCaffrey issued a temporary injunction stopping teachers from "refusing to provide students with letters of recommendation that would have been customarily provided in the past."

A spokeswoman for the New Jersey Education Association, which was also named as a defendant, said teachers volunteer their time to write the letters, which are not included in their contract. "When they're treated with disrespect, you can understand how the level of frustration would build with them," said the spokeswoman, Kathryn Coulibaly.

Exasperation over the protracted talks came to a head at last week's school board meeting, which also marked 1,000 days since the contract expired.

At least 150 teachers protested outside the school board's offices, marching to the tune of Bon Jovi's "It's My Life" and holding signs emblazoned "Settle Now!"

They then packed the board meeting. "The board has decided to put their political aspirations and personal agendas ahead of the students of Washington Township," Kobylinski, the union president, told the audience.

"You've devalued the work that our members do every day. You've decimated staff morale," she added, to nods of agreement and applause from assembled teachers.

Snyder responded that the board is "more than willing to be reasonable. Every time we've met, this board has been willing to move. Rather than vilify anybody, let's lift the gag order" barring public negotiations, he said.

In an interview, Kobylinski said she would not negotiate in public.

Contact Andrew Seidman

at 856-779-3846, or @AndrewSeidman on Twitter.

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