WEST ORANGE, NJ — The tenured teachers of the West Orange Education Association are not attending their Back to School Nights in order to raise awareness about the negotiations dispute that has left them working without a contract for more than a year as well as what they feel has been disrespectful treatment on behalf of the administration.
WOEA President Mark Maniscalco told the West Orange Chronicle that the situation is trying for everyone involved, as the teachers themselves look forward to getting to know parents every year. But, as he said in a statement announcing the boycott, Back to School Night is a volunteer opportunity not included in their contract. And since teachers have few means of protest, he said not volunteering as they have always done — in addition to picketing outside Kelly Elementary School during the first Back to School Night — seemed the best way to bring attention to their concerns.
Maniscalco told the Chronicle that parents can always talk with teachers in person or by email and phone. He also said the teachers are “more than willing” to reschedule Back to School Night when “serious progress is made towards settlement.” But right now, he said, the union will not participate, considering the way its members are being treated.
“Those treated poorly — not respected, not fairly compensated — cannot do their best work,” Maniscalco said in a Sept. 19 email. “One cannot be at her best with one eye over her shoulder. And people who are unhappy at work — even long-serving, incredibly talented people — want to work in a supportive, respectful environment, and lacking that, will look for other options. That, for too many of our current staff, is the current mindset.”
The West Orange Board of Education and the district administration declined to answer questions for this article. Board President Laura Lab did, however, provide a statement exclusively to the Chronicle on the condition that it be published in full instead of being quoted. It can be found here. Though Maniscalco answered the Chronicle’s questions, a WOEA statement issued on Sept. 14 has been published as well; it can be found here.
The WOEA began negotiating with the West Orange Board of Education for a new contract May 7, 2015. A mediator from the Public Employment Relations Commission was appointed after the association declared an impasse May 26, 2016. The BOE most recently presented a contract proposal on Sept. 6, but Maniscalco told the Chronicle that the total compensation offered would be “significantly less valuable.”
Compensation is one of the sticking points for the WOEA with the ongoing negotiations. In his Sept. 14 statement, Maniscalco said the union has been offered raises “seriously below” the Essex County average, in addition to benefits cuts. If accepted, he said the teachers would again receive a diminished net income, an issue he said they have been dealing with for years.
In addition, the union president said the BOE is refusing to negotiate the refunds teachers are paying for health benefit premiums. The board has responded that these contributions are state-mandated, but Maniscalco said in his statement that they have not been legally required since the WOEA’s contract expired June 30, 2015. Since then, he said the refund has cost employees 1.5 percent of their salary.
Maniscalco told the Chronicle that the amount each staff member is paid varies depending on salary and health coverage, though many who received their first paychecks of the school year last week saw their pay decrease by several hundred dollars. This is simply unsustainable, he said.
“The BOE should come to terms with the association on a fair compensation package that does not result in a net decrease in compensation,” Maniscalco said. “People should be able to maintain their health care coverage and still see a modest raise in their paychecks.”
Just as importantly, Maniscalco told the Chronicle that teachers need to be treated with respect. In the past few years, the union president said that the district has gone from a “truly supportive teaching environment,” in which faculty opinions were valued, to a place where staff members feel “distrusted personally and professionally.” In particular, he said there is a general feeling that the administration looks for ways to sanction people instead of trying to improve instruction.
“A ‘gotcha’ mentality prevails, which discourages open and honest dialog about what works and what doesn’t work for our kids,” Maniscalco said.
The level of disrespect teachers feel can also be seen in how the administration handles faculty absences, Maniscalco said. The WOEA president said that anyone who reaches a certain number of days out is asked to account for that time off — even if the administration knows that a teacher had been hospitalized or seriously ill. He said this results in teachers going to school sick, putting students and fellow staff members at risk. It also has a “demoralizing and disrespectful impact” on the staff, he said.
Additionally, Maniscalco said teachers do not feel that there is any room for advancement within district since the current administration has largely hired outside professionals to fill positions. The BOE has previously denied this, pointing out that it has promoted multiple district employees during the past three years, including two assistant principals and four subject supervisors. But the union president said many of those promotions occurred under the previous superintendent, and that only three of 12 administrative positions have been filled with an internal candidate during the current regime.
While the contract dispute between the WOEA and the BOE continues, schools are continuing to host Back to School Nights. Parents whose children have nontenured teachers have been able to meet them as usual. Those whose children have tenured teachers did not have the same opportunity, though they were able to visit classrooms and receive a syllabus.
The parents who spoke with the Chronicle admitted they were disappointed by not meeting all of their children’s teachers, but they also said they understand the reasons for the boycott. Rachel Gordon, co-founder of the West Orange Cares About Schools group, said there is clearly a problem in the district when so many faculty members have spoken about low morale before the board. But Gordon said it seems the administration and board are just not listening when they should instead be negotiating in good faith.
As a teacher herself, Gordon said she knows how difficult the job is. And no one enters the profession looking to get rich, she said. But being respected is vital, she said, which is why she is worried about what might happen if West Orange’s teachers continue to feel wronged.
“My big fear is that if the climate continues, good, experienced teachers will leave our district and go other places where they feel more respected,” Gordon said in a Sept. 17 phone interview.
Kerry Connelly would not want to see that either, considering the impact West Orange teachers have had on her children. She said her daughter’s kindergarten teacher gave her the confidence to thrive in school, while her son’s second-grade teacher instilled a love of art in him after inviting an artist he did a project on to visit his class. And those are just two examples of some of the “amazing” experiences teachers have provided her children.
Connelly, who has experience as a leadership consultant, said that if teachers feel voiceless and underappreciated the whole district will suffer. Therefore, she said the superintendent and the board members need to address this discontent immediately.
“Something is rotten and it needs to get aired out and it needs to get fixed,” Connelly said in a Sept. 16 phone interview. “I don’t feel like (the situation) is being addressed in a productive manner.”
Bobbi Braunstein, president of the Liberty Middle School PTA, said she can also sympathize with what the teachers are going through. If low morale has lasted for so long, Braunstein said it is unsurprising to see frustrations come to a head like this. But she also hopes that fully attended Back to School Nights can be held soon, pointing out that the initiative is one of the few opportunities for many parents to form relationships with their children’s teachers.
Meanwhile, Maniscalco said that, contrary to rumors, teachers are continuing to write recommendation letters for students during negotiations.
Photos Courtesy of Stacie Varanelli