WEST ORANGE, NJ — After nearly two years of working without a contract, the West Orange Education Association finally entered into a new agreement with the West Orange Board of Education on May 25.
The contract features a faculty pay raise that WOEA President Mark Maniscalco described as being in line with state and county averages. It also offers the union membership a choice between the BOE’s proposed Horizon 10/20 plan and the WOEA’s proposed high deductible plan for health insurance.
And while the WOEA did not get everything it wanted, Maniscalco said it is satisfied with the way things turned out.
“We are pleased after all this time to arrive at a reasonable and fair agreement,” Maniscalco told the West Orange Chronicle in a May 25 email. “This is an agreement that includes compromises from both our association and the BOE and works for our teachers and other members as well as for the people of West Orange.”
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky did not respond to a request for comment before press time May 30. BOE President Sandra Mordecai said she could not comment before press time since was unable to speak with the administration due to the Memorial Day weekend.
The contract retroactively covers the years following July 1, 2015, and extends through June 30, 2020. That means WOEA members will receive a paycheck in June compensating them for the wages they would have earned according to the deal during the past two years. Union members whose employment with the district has been severed in the past two years will also receive payment for the time they spent in West Orange’s schools.
According to the terms of the contract released by the Board of Education, the WOEA will see a 13-percent salary raise during the course of the five-year agreement. Specifically, the staff members will get a 2.6-percent increase plus $75,600 for salary guide development each year. This raise came with several stipulations, including that faculty members granted an unpaid leave of absence must work 91 days within the school year to advance on the salary guide. Another term was that the union’s longevity structure will remain unchanged except for security guards, who will get $2,000 for 14 to 18 years of service and — starting in 2019-2020 — $3,000 for 19 to 23 years of service.
As for health benefits, the contract gives WOEA members the option of a 10/20 plan featuring no copay for primary care physicians, a $10 copay for prescriptions and a $20 copay for specialists. Their other option is accepting a high deductible plan in which the board will be responsible for 50 percent of the members’ annual deductibles. Those who accept the HDP will be entitled to additional monetary payments equal to 50 percent of their deductible, which they will be paid in their first paycheck of the 2017-2018 school year. Starting in January 2018 and continuing each subsequent January, the BOE will fund members’ health reimbursement account to 50 percent of the annual deductible and the additional monetary payments equal to 50 percent of the deductible.
Additionally, any union members other than paraprofessionals who wish to opt out of both options will receive health benefit waivers at a rate of $4,000, whether they have family, two adults, parent-child or single-person coverage. Paraprofessionals who choose to opt out will get $2,000.
The fact that the overall health benefits package was approved by the WOEA should please the BOE, which specified in the released terms that not accepting the deal by June 1 would have caused the district to lose out on roughly $112,000 in savings per month. Indeed, the board wrote when it released those terms that it was striving to get the contract signed as soon as possible.
“The health benefits that we have proposed are highly competitive in the state, save the WOEA members and the district money and represent a substantial improvement over current options,” the board’s statement read. “The Board of Education is working hard and with a sense of great urgency to bring reconciliation and a positive conclusion to the negotiations with the WOEA.”
WOEA members will continue to make contributions to their health care in accordance with Tier IV of Chapter 78, the 2011 state health benefits reform law that requires public sector employees to contribute toward paying health insurance premiums. Those contributions were a major sticking point throughout the negotiations, as the union maintained that the rate expected by the BOE was too high. Maniscalco said his membership still believes the rate is exorbitant, but in the end other factors compelled the union to accept the deal.
“Because of the savings realized through the changes in plans and the improvements in salary guides, the WOEA was amenable to the overall settlement terms,” Maniscalco said. “In real negotiations no party gets all that they want, and a fair deal involves compromises from all sides. This was our most significant compromise.”
Signing the agreement puts an end to the years-long dispute between the union and board that became more public as the months passed. On several occasions, the WOEA held demonstrations protesting the fact that its membership was working without a contract, with tenured teachers even boycotting the district’s Back to School Nights in 2016. Most recently, the WOEA announced it would only fulfill contractually mandated obligations.
Eventually a tentative agreement on health benefits and salaries was reached on April 17, but the WOEA was not yet ready to sign. According to the BOE’s statement in releasing the contract’s terms, Maniscalco sent a list of 37 open items on April 25, including some that had never been raised previously. The board had approximately 40 items of its own, but it withdrew them “in an effort to settle the contract immediately.” On April 28, some of the WOEA’s items were resolved, but on May 12, the New Jersey Education Association’s UniServ representative sent a five-page document with open items to be negotiated. The BOE agreed to some of the items on May 15 en route to the contract being signed 10 days later.
When asked about this sequence of events, Maniscalco said the situation was just a matter of ironing out some “housekeeping items.” It took a few weeks because the union and board needed to work around the schedules of lawyers and representatives, he explained.
Looking ahead, Maniscalco said staff members’ spirits should improve now that they have a fair contract. But the president also pointed out that the lack of an agreement was only one reason faculty morale has been low. In the past, WOEA members have spoken out against what they’ve said has been poor treatment from the district administration. They specifically have felt a lack of respect from the BOE regarding such matters as having to implement curricular programs on short notice and an employee being docked pay for being absent to attend a funeral.
But Ruztky and the BOE have refuted the notion they are inconsiderate of the staff, stressing that they have the utmost respect for employees. Rutzky previously told the Chronicle that he has been meeting with teachers individually and in groups to listen to their concerns and ask 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 and training them in the months before the program started.
That is not enough to satisfy the WOEA, though. So while the contract may help heal the rift and between the union and the district, Maniscalco said morale is still not where it should be.
“There is more work to be done,” Maniscalco said. “If we do not engage in corrective action, the improvement that an agreement will undoubtedly deliver will be dissipated, and this positive moment will be lost.”