Teachers union and district reach impasse in contract negotiations in South Orange–Maplewood

SOMEA President Rocio Lopez speaks at the Nov. 15 Board of Education meeting.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange–Maplewood Education Association, the district’s teacher’s union, has reached an impasse in its negotiations for a new contract with the school district and Board of Education, and all involved parties will be meeting with mediators at the beginning of the year. The union has been working under the old contract, which expired this past spring, and is asking the district for raises, finding that salaries are not competitive with other districts in Essex County.

“We’ve looked at Montclair, Livingston, Nutley, East Orange and West Orange,” SOMEA President Rocio Lopez said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Nov. 26. “If you look at West Orange, a person with the same position as me makes $30,000 more a year. We’re not asking for that, but we want more.”

According to Lopez, the district offered a three-year contract with 2-percent raises, or a one-year contract with raises; the union did not know the raise percentage on the one-year contract, so it did not agree to either option. The district declared an impasse soon after.

“We created our own salary guide and tried to be as fair as we could,” Lopez said. “We have a lot of new people in the district, especially in administration, so they might not know how it’s been. We want to find a solution.”

Despite the willingness to negotiate, SOMSD teachers are spreading themselves thin. Lopez said many have left for other districts in the area because of better support and higher salaries. Many younger new teachers stay for a few years and then find better teaching jobs elsewhere, once they have more experience.

“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 said. “We want to give people hope that they’re respected.”

Much of what Lopez said was echoed by union members at the BOE meeting.

“For me, the reality of our salary guide is currently quite grim,” Columbia High School history teacher Kristie Thomas, who has been in the district since 2011, said at the meeting. “People hired after me with less experience and with no institutional knowledge of our district are offered more money because of the salary freezes and collapsed steps that have plagued us. Our salary guide does not reward loyalty and does not offer any incentive for those of us who have pledged the majority of our careers to the South Orange–Maplewood School District. There is no incentive for us to stay.”

Thomas said that were she to leave the district and be hired a year later, she would receive an $11,000 raise. She works other jobs outside of teaching to supplement her income.

South Orange resident Jessica Wheeler, a teacher at Tuscan Elementary School, pointed out that the district renewed Superintendent Ronald Taylor’s contract with raises before the old one expired.

“This Board of Ed voted to give our superintendent a $30,000 raise prior to his contract being up for renewal,” Wheeler, who has two children of her own who are students in the district, said at the meeting. “Many teachers in this district leave to make more money in surrounding areas. Many of our children attend or have attended schools in this district, and we want the best learning environment for them and for all district students. Many of us went through and graduated from this district and feel proud to work here because we believe in this district. In spite of all our passion and dedication, here we are asking for the respect and appreciation we deserve.”

At the meeting, Taylor said he could not respond to the union members’ comments because legally he cannot comment on ongoing contract negotiations. 

“The district is continuing to negotiate in good faith with SOMEA,” district spokesperson Anide Eustache said in a Dec. 1 email. “We value our teachers and the work they do daily and hope to come to mutually agreeable terms in the coming months.”

Nevertheless, the teachers union is displeased with the district.

“I’ve never seen my colleagues so unhappy,” Lopez told the News-Record on Nov. 26. “They feel disrespected. It’s like a slap in the face.”