Tensions continue to rise between administration, teachers

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky has come under fire after making reference to the ongoing West Orange Education Association contract negotiations in an email that asked district faculty to keep daily challenges “in perspective” on the fourth anniversary of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Rutzky’s Dec. 14 email stated that sometimes people start believing their everyday challenges — whether it be the contract or personal issues — are bad until a tragedy like the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn., shows them otherwise. The superintendent further wrote that he was sure everyone would agree those working at the school now keep things in perspective.

“With that, I want to thank you and ask that you think about what is really important,” Rutzky said in the email. “We will get through the struggles of the contract. Hang in there and keep plugging! I promise you that is happening at Sandy Hook Elementary School today.”

Several staff members leaked the message to the West Orange Cares About Schools parent group and the popular West Orange 411 Facebook page shortly after it was sent. The backlash was immediate, with dozens of parents calling the superintendent’s office and sending letters to the Board of Education decrying that Rutzky would seemingly put the contract dispute and the murder of 26 people in the same context. Many even urged the board not to renew his contract.

That response prompted Rutzky to send a follow-up email in which he apologized for what he called the “misperception” associated with his comments.

“I have learned that the email I sent out about Sandy Hook was interpreted by some as insensitive and disrespectful,” Rutzky said in his second email. “Please know that was not my intention and I sincerely apologize for the misunderstood message. I was simply trying to say that we need to keep things in perspective in light of the horrific act at Sandy Hook. Obviously, I did a poor job writing what I wanted to express.”

In a Dec. 19 statement to the Chronicle, Rutzky reiterated that sentiment, stressing that “In no way was I trying to be insensitive.”

Still, many parents do not feel that message is enough. Robin Isserles, the WOCAS co-founder who posted the first email on her group’s Facebook page, said she felt Rutzky’s apology was “empty” because it never took ownership of the fact that he should not have used Sandy Hook to make his point at all. Instead, Isserles said, he apologized for people’s interpretation of the words, which misses the point.

“That’s not really a sincere apology,” Isserles told the Chronicle in a Dec. 18 phone interview. “There was a certain amount of tone-deafness (to it). I don’t think he really understood the outpouring of anger and disgust from the community.”

Nicole Ruffo, one of the parents outraged by the email, told the Chronicle she was “appalled” by Rutzky’s “insensitive” comments, especially since she does not think his reasoning makes sense. Though Sandy Hook teachers might indeed view life differently today, she said that does not mean they will be willing to accept an unfair contract or none at all. If anything, she said, the tragedy only emphasizes why teachers deserve to be paid more when they must put their lives on the line to protect their students.

Fellow parent Elizabeth Redwine said she was “disturbed and troubled” that the superintendent would make any kind of link between the Sandy Hook shooting and a contract dispute. She questioned what kind of standard he was being held to when no other professional would get away with making such comments. She also said it seems like the email had a greater implication considering the ongoing contract negotiations, telling the Chronicle she got the impression Rutzky was trying to bully the teachers.

“For him to use that to try to manipulate the teachers is just a devastating thing to see,” Redwine said in a Dec. 16 phone interview. “I’d heard all of these negative things about Rutzky’s disrespect for the teachers, but I was withholding judgment. Once I read that email, I thought ‘This is all I need to know.’”

Parent Angie Beeman pointed out that district staff members have said for months that they have been working in a climate of disrespect. And the superintendent’s message is evidence of that, she said.

“When I read it, it didn’t come across to me at all as just trying to keep things in perspective as he said,” Beeman told the Chronicle in a Dec. 16 phone interview. “It clearly, to me, seemed like he was trying to shame teachers and say that ‘Things aren’t so bad. Look at Sandy Hook. You’re not having to deal with that.’ It just was very uncomfortable, and I thought it was really disrespectful.”

The superintendent disagrees with the belief of some that he treats his staff disrespectfully. In his second email, Rutzky said he has been having conversations with groups of teachers in which the educators expressed frustrations and told him they did not believe their work is appreciated. In response, he apologized to anyone who felt that way.

But Rutzky said that sentiment is simply untrue.

“Please know that I absolutely appreciate your hard work and how you take care of our students every day,” Rutzky said. “I know sometimes it may not feel that I recognize your efforts, but I do. Taking care of our students and helping you so you can take care of our students is my priority.”

Some district faculty members are still unhappy, though. One teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Chronicle that staff morale is very low. Many faculty members have said that they live in fear of being retaliated against either through a bad evaluation or other means, the teacher said, which hinders their ability to educate students effectively.

Another staff member who requested anonymity told the Chronicle that employee morale is “terrible,” describing it as the worst he has seen it in his nearly 20 years with the district. He said a key reason for that is the lack of compassion shown to the staff, recalling how one teacher was given a hard time for taking time off to visit his dying mother. In fact, he said, things have gotten so bad that no one is planning to attend the faculty holiday party.

“People are miserable,” the staff member said in a Dec. 16 phone interview. “People don’t want to come to work. That’s how bad it is. But people need a paycheck — they’ve got bills to pay and mouths to feed. So we all come here, we put on our happy face and we get along as best as we can.”

Meanwhile, the WOEA has been working without a contract for a year and a half. And the union is starting to make their grievances known. Roughly 200 staff members most recently interrupted the Dec. 12 Board of Education meeting, chanting that they wanted a contract as West Orange Education Foundation treasurer Jim Quinn was trying to present a $3,600 donation to the West Orange High School boys step team.

The WOEA subsequently sent a statement to the Chronicle saying that its members only want a “reasonable and fair contract” — one that compensates them fairly and provides quality health care coverage while also ending the yearly cuts to their take-home pay. The statement said these cuts — which have come primarily through involuntary deductions to cover health care costs — have resulted in faculty members losing millions of salary dollars during the past five years. Yet the board has refused to negotiate lower staff contributions, according to the statement, even though the sunset schedule for the state law requiring the deductions allows such negotiations to happen at this point. The WOEA insists that should change.

“What the members of the WOEA are asking for is not unreasonable or in any way extravagant,” the statement read. “We simply want a contract that allows us to stop worrying about how we will pay for our own families’ needs, so that we may focus on the work that we love — providing an excellent education to the students of West Orange.”

WOEA President Mark Maniscalco declined to comment further.

The second anonymous staff member, who is on the WOEA’s negotiating committee, said the board canceled a Dec. 14 mediation session. The BOE last made an offer on Nov. 8, he said, but it was rejected by the union. The staff member said he personally would like to see the board shop for a different health care plan or else put the faculty into the state public employees health benefits plan.

BOE President Laura Lab said the board is hopeful it can expedite the negotiation process because everyone needs a resolution.

“The board and the West Orange Education Association stand in unison to find a middle ground that is fair to their members and to the West Orange taxpayers,” Lab told the Chronicle in a Dec. 19 statement.

In the interim, Lab said the board hopes everyone will give greater consideration to how their actions affect students, referring to the protest during the step team’s presentation as an example.

And while the WOEA’s contract remains in limbo, Lab said the BOE was able to settle contracts with the administrators, buildings and grounds, and bus drivers unions. She said the parties agreed to “modest changes” to the current health benefits plan that will result in savings to both the employees and the taxpayers. Additionally, she said the parties agreed to eliminate the $5,000 payment for waiving health benefits on top of salary raises averaging a 2.5-percent increase during the next three years.