BOE, WOEA reach tentative agreement

School district, teachers’ union reach consensus on salaries, benefits; a few items left to decide

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education and the West Orange Education Association reached a tentative agreement regarding health benefits and salary increases on April 17.

Neither side would comment on the specifics of the deals since they are still negotiating other issues and therefore have not yet arrived at a final contract. But Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky did say in a press statement that the $1.3 million in savings factored into the pending school budget will not have to be removed, thanks to the settlement. That means additional job cuts beyond the 42 reductions already proposed will not be necessary.

This settlement counts as a major step forward as disagreements over benefits and salaries were the major reasons that the Board of Education and the union had been unable to reach an agreement, resulting in two years without a contract. To finally be on the same page for those matters is a tremendous positive, according to Board of Education President Sandra Mordecai.

“We are extremely optimistic that this process is coming to a close and all parties will be satisfied,” Mordecai said in an April 24 statement to the West Orange Chronicle.

WOEA President Mark Maniscalco declined to comment for this article, saying he would prefer to talk after a final agreement has been reached.

But the BOE and WOEA still do not see eye-to-eye on everything. Mordecai said the board was disappointed to hear that union leaders have instructed their general membership to continue refraining from volunteerism outside of work hours until a final contract has been reached; at the beginning of the school year, for instance, several union members refused to attend Back to School Nights. Though the leadership did tell members they should write recommendations for students applying for summer programs, Mordecai said several end-of-year activities will likely be affected.

Mordecai said these include moving-up ceremonies for fifth-, sixth- and eighth-graders as well as concerts and field trips — all of which either exceed school hours or take place in the evening when parents can attend. She said the board has been informed that high school staff members have already started notifying administrators that they will not attend this year’s graduation ceremony.

Still, Mordecai said the BOE remains undeterred in its goal of reaching an acceptable contract.

“We are extremely disappointed that the end of the year activities will still be willfully affected even though there is a tentative agreement for salary increases and health benefits,” Mordecai said. “Nonetheless, the board is committed to expediting negotiations so we can continue to move forward as a district.”

That matter was not the only controversial subject raised in recent weeks. Though the agreement saved numerous jobs, approximately 70 legally required Rice notices were sent out to employees before the settlement had been reached. These notices — which inform staff members of the possibility that their jobs will be discussed by the BOE so they can request a public hearing if desired — essentially became meaningless for those employees who are no longer in danger of losing their positions, thanks to the agreement. But they still attracted a large turnout of concerned staff and parents at the April 17 BOE meeting.

Some of the meeting’s speakers were library media specialists, who received Rice notices because they were being considered as some of the additional cuts made if the $1.3 million were to be removed from the budget. Others were upset employees and residents, who spoke out on behalf of staff members still at risk, calling for their jobs to be saved and criticizing the board and superintendent for their treatment of the staff.

Yet Rutzky and Mordecai denied any intended harm in subsequent public statements. The superintendent stressed that library media specialists are not in danger of losing their jobs now that the tentative agreement has been reached. He also pointed out that the practice of issuing Rice notices is followed annually by the West Orange School District as well as districts across the state during budget processes and staff reappointments.

In her public statement, Mordecai made it clear that the BOE is not an opponent of library media specialists.

“The board members have been receiving emails stating how important librarians are in our school district,” Mordecai said. “We could not agree more.”

Reaching the settlement has certainly made the budget situation less dire, but many employees are still facing termination. The 42 reductions featured in the preliminary budget include 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. The BOE will vote on the final budget at its May 1 meeting.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if the WOEA and BOE can reach an agreement before the union hits the two-year anniversary of its last contract expiration in June. The association is currently the only union working in the district to not have come to a settlement with the board. According to Mordecai, the West Orange Administrators Association ratified its contract on March 20 while fulltime and part-time workers from the Local 68 ratified their respective contracts in 2016.