SOUTH ORANGE/MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Members of the South Orange-Maplewood Education Association showed up in droves to the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting for the second month in a row on Monday, Dec. 20, asking for higher salaries that compete with other districts in the area, ahead of its first mediation session with the district in January. An impasse in contract negotiations was reached in the fall, stalling the signing of a new contract for the SOMEA and requiring the mediation sessions.
Rocio Lopez, the president of SOMEA and a Spanish teacher at Columbia High School, said she heard from colleagues that the district is starting a Culturally Responsive Sustaining Education Committee.
“Why are they going outside and outsourcing when we have them inside?” Lopez asked at the meeting. “There is no communication whatsoever with us. I will meet with anyone and everyone that cares about this system.”
In an interview with the News-Record on Friday, Nov. 26, after members of SOMEA spoke at the November BOE meeting, Lopez said teachers in the district are spreading themselves thin. Many have left for jobs in other districts because of better support and higher salaries.
“We’re training people all the time, because we all help each other,” she said. “When you train someone and then they leave, it destroys the morale of the department.”
Union members have found it tough to attract prospective employees to the district; to compensate, teachers say they are teaching more classes than they normally would or covering extra lunch periods.
“We’re all overworking,” Lopez told the News-Record. “We want to give people hope that they’re respected.”
Shira Lincoln, the vice president of the union, also spoke at the meeting. She said staff members are overwhelmed, and the ongoing pandemic is not helping matters.
“Each day, we report to school and learn of more students who must quarantine, more students who are sick, colleagues who are sick and families who are struggling, leaving us scrambling to meet their needs virtually,” Lincoln said. “We are still trying to close the gap and teach students who are struggling due to the effects of the pandemic.”
She added that, as COVID-19 cases rise because of the omicron variant, teachers are trying to keep themselves and their families from getting sick.
“Do you realize how challenging this is?” Lincoln said. “It is so easy for the central office to give the directives, but when was the last time they left their offices, where they are safer from the virus than we are, to actually visit schools? Please understand, we are working hard for our students. But we are overburdened and overwhelmed.”
Amanda Mazzarella, herself a graduate of Columbia High School and a teacher at South Mountain Elementary School, said that in her 10 years of teaching in the district, she has not moved up the salary guide steps as she should have, due to salary freezes.
“Despite continued education and experience that benefits my students, I have been stuck literally in the middle for a decade,” Mazzarella said. “However, it’s not just about the money. Teacher voices are dismissed, diminished and ignored. We have spent countless hours making it work as best as possible in these circumstances, yet our input is rarely sought out or respected.”
In a statement at the meeting by BOE President Thair Joshua, a counteroffer was not made when the district initially countered the union’s request of a 6.1-percent raise.
“At our last negotiations meeting, the BOE made a counter to the union opening offer of a 6.1-percent raise. The SOMEA negotiator stated our offer deserved a counterproposal; however, no counter was made. Instead, the union returned with the same offer of 6.1 percent. The large gap between both parties, as well as unwillingness to counter our offer, is why we both agreed to go to mediation,” Joshua said.
“Once the mediator was assigned, all three parties worked to find mutually agreeable dates to meet. We have a date set for early January, and we look forward to our mediation session. We know SOMEA salary guides are floating around on social media. It is worth noting that the BOE does not determine salary guides. They are reviewed and approved by the BOE after they are created by the union, which works in conjunction with NJEA. I want to reiterate that the board is ready to negotiate in good faith and looks forward to a resolution to this matter.”
When asked to comment, district officials referred to Joshua’s statement in an email to the News-Record on Thursday, Dec. 23.