WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Education Association and the West Orange Board of Education did not agree upon a new contract by April 1, which was the start of the 91-day time period that district insurance provider Horizon has set to roll into the 10/20 plan being offered by the BOE.
WOEA President Mark Maniscalco told the West Orange Chronicle that he could not comment on the details of the negotiations because he believes public discussion of the process is inappropriate until a resolution has been reached. But Maniscalco did say that there are actually several health care proposals being worked on now by the union and the board — not just the 10/20 package discussed by board members during the March 22 preliminary budget hearing. That plan involves no co-pay for primary care physicians, a $10 co-pay for prescriptions and a $20 co-pay for specialists, which BOE negotiating committee member Irv Schwarzbaum said at the hearing was comparable to the union’s current package.
There will be no agreement until all terms are agreed upon, Maniscalco said. And he said nothing is off the table at this time.
“The proposals are not exclusive and hopefully will result in savings to both the WOEA and the BOE,” Maniscalco said in an April 1 email.
Maniscalco further stated that the WOEA hopes and expects to find “creative ways” to save money for both staff and the board without compromising on the quality of the union’s health care.
In recent weeks, Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky has emphasized that the West Orange School District could lose $1.3 million in savings if the 10/20 plan is not accepted soon. Those savings were worked into its 2017-18 preliminary budget, which means the budget might have to be extensively reworked if that $1.3 million is no longer in play. The BOE will vote on the final budget May 1.
But BOE negotiating committee member Laura Lab clarified that the rates of the 10/20 plan are actually good from July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2018. Lab also said that the board and the union have another negotiation session scheduled for April 7 after their last meeting on March 29.
“We are hoping for a quick resolution to the contract,” Lab told the Chronicle in an April 3 email.
If a settlement is in fact reached on April 7, it will mark the first time in nearly two years that the WOEA will have a contract. Ever since the staff’s previous contract ended in June 2015, the union and the board have been unable to see eye-to-eye on a number of issues that have prevented another agreement from taking place. Most prominent among them is the WOEA’s belief it should receive a “reasonable” deal that includes a fair raise and an end to the district’s deducting a significant amount from its pay to cover health benefits. Maniscalco has made it clear in the past that the board must stop “picking our pockets” since 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.
Because no contract has been reached yet, the WOEA has started to demonstrate its unhappiness. Last year, tenured teachers boycotted the district’s Back to School nights due to their lack of a contract as well as their feeling that administrative leaders were not treating them respectfully. At their most recent protest on March 21, union members also handed out fliers emphasizing that they will now only fulfill contractually mandated obligations, which means they will not attend events outside of working hours among other actions.
The BOE, however, has stressed that it is in a tough financial bind with health care costs increasing, state aid remaining flat and the budget limited by the state-mandated 2-percent cap. It has said it values its staff members, but needs to reach an agreement that is equitable for all parties involved — including the teachers, the district and the taxpayers.
Meanwhile, Rutzky told the Chronicle that the district is working diligently to find more savings in its budget. The superintendent said he could not go into detail on what changes might be made since a lot depends on the ongoing contract negotiations. But he did say that scaling back on the number of reductions included in the preliminary budget was a priority.
“Every day we’re working on the budget and doing the best we can trying to save as many positions and programs as possible,” Rutzky said in an April 3 phone interview.
The preliminary budget listed a total of 42 jobs on the chopping block, including 13 teachers, 20 full-time and four part-time paraprofessionals, two supervisors, two assistant principals, three administrative assistants, one clerical aide and one technology technician. Additionally, five leased buses are set to be eliminated.