WOEA, district butt heads over health care plan, contract

WOEA and BOE seem unable to reach contract agreement

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Members of the West Orange Board of Education revealed the details of the latest health care plan presented to the West Orange Education Association, stressing during its special March 22 meeting that the package would prevent costs from increasing by approximately $1.3 million if accepted by Horizon’s April 1 deadline.

Irv Schwarzbaum, the BOE vice president and a negotiating team member, said the 10/20 plan being offered features no copay for primary care physicians, a $10 copay for prescriptions and a $20 copay for specialists. That is comparable to the union’s current medical plan, Schwarzbaum said, which has copays of $10, $20 and $30. He also said the package now on the table has no increases in dental or vision care.

In addition, negotiating team member Laura Lab said the board is offering a high deductible plan to the WOEA. So with everything the board was able to work out with Horizon, Lab said it is eager to reach an agreement with the WOEA after more than a year of negotiations.

“We’re hoping that the negotiations come to a conclusion so we can move forward with our budget and lock in these rates before the rates are no longer available to us,” Lab said.

Schwarzbaum added that the $1.3 million in savings was already factored into the school district’s preliminary budget, which was approved later on in the meeting. That means the budget would likely have to be significantly changed if the union does not accept the health care package.

But as of press time March 28, the WOEA has not publicly indicated whether it will take the deal. What union representatives did make clear was their disbelief that the BOE would announce details of what are supposed to be private negotiations. New Jersey Education Association UniServ field representative Luis Delgado scolded the BOE during the public comment portion of the meeting, questioning why it would jeopardize good faith discussions by involving the public.

WOEA President Mark Maniscalco also disagreed with the BOE’s actions, arguing that it was merely trying to threaten the union into accepting the health care plan by publicly emphasizing a deadline. Afterward, Maniscalco told the West Orange Chronicle that the board’s behavior was out of line.

“I think it is inappropriate and believe the board’s public revelations constitute an unfair labor practice and a violation of the ground rules for negotiations that were mutually agreed upon,” Maniscalco said in a March 23 email.

Due to his belief that the negotiations should remain private, Maniscalco said he could not comment on the health care plan put forward by the BOE.

Yet the district administration and BOE did not feel it acted wrongly, with Lab pointing out during the meeting that her comments had been approved by counsel. She also indicated that Delgado’s comments were hypocritical when, according to her, the NJEA representative behaved very disrespectfully toward the BOE negotiating team at the last negotiation session. She alleged that he even uttered the “most vulgar of expletives” to the district’s health broker.

As for the idea that the BOE and administration were using intimidation tactics, Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky said that notion is simply untrue. Rutzky told the Chronicle that he was only trying to be transparent about the deadline and possible consequences if a settlement cannot be reached.

“It is nothing more than a financial fact,” Rutzky said in a March 27 phone interview. “The last thing that I want to do is lay off any staff or cut positions or lose programs. That is a very, very terrible thing for any superintendent to have to do that, and this year is a very, very challenging budget. And now we have that exact situation happening. (If the $1.3 million cannot be saved) there would be other cuts that would have to happen.”

When asked for comment, BOE President Sandra Mordecai said Rutzky would speak on behalf of the board.

While negotiations continue, the WOEA proved it was unwilling to wait silently by, holding a protest in the space between West Orange High School and Kelly Elementary School on March 21. Sporting the union’s signature red shirts and holding signs emblazoned with messages such as “No More Excuses. Settle Now!,” hundreds of staff members lined Pleasant Valley Way to demonstrate their frustrations on what was their 629th day without a contract. And they received plenty of support from drivers, who greeted them with a steady stream of honks throughout the time they were outside.

By holding such a rally, Maniscalco said the WOEA hoped to bring attention to the cause it has been fighting for more than a year: A “reasonable contract” that would provide for a fair raise and stop the pay deductions for health benefits that has caused staff to lose millions of dollars in income. The union president said that Chapter 78, the 2011 state health benefits reform law that required public sector employees to contribute toward paying health insurance premiums, allowed for the West Orange School District to begin negotiating regarding the amount of the contributions by July 1, 2015. But the board has instead kept “picking our pockets,” he said, and that cannot continue.

If it does, Maniscalco said the district is bound to suffer as a result. He said West Orange schools are filled with amazing, experienced teachers who genuinely love the community. Yet many are retiring early or are telling aspiring teachers not to come to the WOSD, the president said. He said losing good educators will bring about a decline in the quality of the school system, which in turn will have a negative impact on property values.

And none of this will be the fault of staff members, Maniscalco said.

“No one goes into education to get rich,” Maniscalco told the Chronicle before the protest. “And no one is asking anyone to bankrupt the town. But people do expect to be able to pay their bills and don’t expect — after attaining bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees and doctorate degrees and putting in decades of work — to see their take-home salaries decreased.”

Take-home pay is not the only issue about which the WOEA is concerned. WOHS teacher Tony Edelstein told the Chronicle that staff morale is at an all-time low because employees are feeling disrespected by those at the administrative level. This notion has come from a number of glaring incidents, such as a staff member being docked pay to attend a funeral, Edelstein said. But he said it has also resulted from the general sense that teachers are not given the opportunity to give input on district decisions despite their talent and expertise.

Overall, Edelstein said the staff feels taken for granted. In joining together for a protest, he said he hopes the WOEA can send the message that their treatment is unacceptable.

“We would like to show the Board of Education and the superintendent that we take this issue very, very seriously,” Edelstein said. “We are prepared to fight for what is just, what is morally right.”

Edelstein’s own children have benefited from attending the WOSD, which is a big part of why he said he wants to make sure the schools remain excellent. Gregory Elementary School librarian Julie Matz also has noticed how special West Orange schools are after coming from the New York City school system. The New York system was so large and cuts were made so often that it was hard to develop a personal connection to it, Matz said. It was an eye-opening experience to join the WOSD, where she said people truly care for each other.

Now, however, Matz said she is noticing that staff are feeling disheartened due to changes in the district. Specifically, she said teachers are being evaluated on their instruction of programs that were thrust upon them with little training. No one wants to impede progress, she said, pointing out that she loves being able to integrate technology into her lessons. But the way the district handles implementing new programming is simply not working, she said.

“It’s like being asked to change your tire while you’re going 60 miles an hour down the highway,” Matz told the Chronicle. “You can’t do it.”

Working without a contract on top of that only makes the situation worse, according to Roosevelt Middle School teacher Jay Wecht. In fact, Wecht told the Chronicle he has never seen anything like the current situation in all of his 22 years with the district. He hopes a settlement can be reached soon because, in his view, the WOEA is only asking for what is fair. If a contract is not reached and good teachers continue to leave, he said the people who will be hurt most are the students who will be deprived of an exceptional education.

“This is not simply a contract that needs to be ratified — this is much, much more,” Wecht said. “It has an impact on every aspect of West Orange life and our future.”

Staff members were not the only ones protesting. Numerous community members joined in the demonstration to show their support for the WOEA, including Susan Pasquale, who said it is “ridiculous” that teachers have been forced to work without a contract for nearly two years, pointing out that some have even had to take on second jobs. She stressed that the BOE needs to settle now, or else residents will start leaving West Orange in search for better schools.

Pat Timen, whose children and grandchildren have attended the WOSD, agreed that West Orange’s educators are not getting the respect they deserve — and this upsets her.

“This is so wrong because we have dedicated, caring teachers,” Timen told the Chronicle. “My grandson is graduating. He’s going to (college because) he wants to become a teacher. That wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t have quality people who touched his life.”

Robin Isserles, co-founder of parents group West Orange Cares About Schools and a teacher outside the district, said she hopes the WOEA gets the contract it wants and the administrative support it needs to thrive. Isserles said education is a field filled with intangible duties, to the point that it is easy not to realize all the profession requires. But that does not mean adequate compensation should be overlooked, she said.

“People know about the grades and the classroom work, but there’s a mental energy that’s required to be introspective about your teaching,” Isserles told the Chronicle. “That’s OK, it’s what we got into (teaching) for because we love what we do. But because of that, I think there needs to be an appreciation for the stuff that’s not quantified.”

Those concerns are not falling on deaf ears, as Rutzky stressed that he absolutely appreciates all that teachers do. He said the administration fully knows there is no one more important to a child’s education than a teacher. But the superintendent said West Orange, like many other districts in New Jersey, is struggling right now with rising health care costs in the face of a 2-percent budget cap.

That has caused the contract negotiations to drag on, Rutzky said, which leaves teachers feeling undervalued.

“When we get to those contract negotiations, it gets challenging,” Rutzky said. “My feeling is, once the contract is settled, everything will fall back into place and we will continue on.”

While those negotiations happen, Rutzky said he has been meeting with teachers individually and in groups to listen to their concerns and ask them what he can do to help. And he said the administration does take their input to heart, such as when it postponed fourth- and fifth-grade departmentalization for a year due to concerns expressed by teachers and principals. Likewise, he said the Fundations phonics program was introduced after getting feedback from educators regarding the district’s language arts curriculum. Teachers were well prepared for Fundations as well, he said, since training started months before the program was implemented.

Meanwhile, not every West Orange resident who attended the March 22 BOE meeting believes the WOEA should get everything it wants. Former board member Megan Brill said the union should pay more for any health care plan that will be expensive to the district. Otherwise, Brill said, they should be willing to accept a more affordable package.

Adam Kraemer said he would be in favor of a plan in which the taxpayers cover 80 percent of health benefits costs while all three of the district’s unions paid for 20 percent. In exchange, Kraemer said there would not have to be any staff layoffs.

“I think the numbers would work, and I think that would be the fairest way,” Kraemer said, adding that the West Orange’s school tax levy is already quite high.

Photos by Sean Quinn


Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct an error. The story initially stated that the BOE had offered a nondeductible plan proposal. It was in fact a high deductible plan proposal.