WOEA calls for fair pay, respect

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The following is the condensed form of a statement given to the West Orange Chronicle from the West Orange Education Association, the teachers’ union, regarding the current dispute with the Board of Education:

While we are reluctant to engage the BOE in a tit-for-tat exchange, we would be remiss if we did not reply and point out the clear inaccuracies to their “response” to our members making and then acting upon a principled decision to refuse to volunteer our time for BTS night.

First, there is no contractual obligation to work any evening event. Our contract clearly defines the work day, and that day starts 10 minutes before the start of instruction and, on most days, ends 30 minutes after the end of daily instruction. The contract is clear and unambiguous.

And yet we usually go. We go because we want to establish, foster, encourage and deepen our relationships with the parents, our natural and very real allies and partners in our efforts to help their children — our students — grow, learn and develop intellectually, socially and emotionally.

Over the years, there have been many people who, for whatever reason, could not attend BTS night. And there was no sanction for those who could not or would not attend. Why not? Because you can’t punish someone for not volunteering.

We know our members want to attend BTS night, but, as public employees, there are few ways to really grab the attention of those who are, along with us, the biggest stakeholders in our schools, our town, our collective experience. Like the parents, we are long-term West Orange folks with many residents among our ranks and with all of us committed to the long-term betterment of this great community.

We hope to reschedule these experiences so we can spend the time with the parents that we all so value. But until the BOE shows us that our time has value, we will not simply give it away.

The BOE’s response to Back to School Night fails to deal in any material way with the economic realities facing our staff. Many on our staff have experienced continually diminished take-home pay. That is a reality, making our schools less and less attractive to work in.

They fail to note that the short-term offer, which the WOEA has rejected, constituted a step backward, resulting in a total compensation package that would offer “raises” seriously below the county average, coupled with cuts in benefits that would result in a total compensation package that would produce another net negative raise for the staff.

After years of diminished net income for so many staff members, a regressive, negative settlement might give the BOE the ability to beat its chest in some sort of pyrrhic victory, as it simultaneously harms each and every staff member, but it is not a result that we in West Orange will ever accept.

We are a community that values its schools and its teachers. We will not stand for falsehoods and misdirection.

Instead of focusing on the actual issues involved in negotiations, the BOE instead tries to spin the issues, to muddy the waters by bringing up immaterial matters.

If our members could feed their children with scheduling conflicts, maybe they would be relevant. But we can’t and they are not.

If the summer vacation taken by a key member of the negotiating team in 2015 is what they think is important, they are revealing how empty their complaints really are, and how unwilling they are to deal with the tangible issues that they have not come close to resolving at the table.

And even in spinning about something as inconsequential as scheduling conflicts, they are not truthful about the number and dates of session that were rescheduled, including a date that was naturally off the table once impasse — brought on by what we believe was a clear breach of the duty to bargain in good faith — was declared.

Of course, they also don’t speak of the fact that they canceled sessions, including a mediation session scheduled for this past summer.

They don’t speak to the fact that we have met more than a dozen times and not made significant progress. Again, a fact like that reveals that the BOE’s misleading, selective and, at times, inaccurate focus on scheduling conflict is a desperate attempt to blow smoke and tell you the house is on fire. This is not the way honest brokers deal with their constituents. Focusing on irrelevant matters is a transparent tactic employed by those who wish to avoid substance.

They do refer to a BOE offer that was laughable and unacceptable on its face, and resulted in the termination of the last mediation session.

The BOE response indicates that our assertion that there is a serious and demoralizing failure to encourage growth among the staff and to promote from within is somehow inaccurate. Despite what is claimed, the current administration has been responsible for the appointment of 12 administrative positions since arriving. Contrary to the response, only three were awarded to WOSD staff. The BOE response attempts to claim credit for internal promotions made by the prior superintendent.

While we certainly acknowledge and celebrate the talents of all staff hired and do not diminish the quality or worth of any of these recently welcomed administrators, it is without question that the clear message conveyed by a hiring pattern that devalues the highly qualified, experienced, knowledgeable and trustworthy current employees sends a message that their talents are valueless. We are losing great people. If you’re not welcome at home, you find another home.

Astoundingly, the BOE response also whines because we speak of the millions of dollars we involuntarily refund to the BOE, a refund that was never negotiated, but was originally imposed from the state, giving the BOE an enormous windfall at the direct expense of the good people who take care of your children.

They claim that the refund is a state mandate. But this astoundingly oppressive refund is no longer a legal requirement, and has not been required since the day our contract expired, June 30, 2015.

Since that date, the state minimum involuntary salary refund has been 1.5 percent of our salary. Since that date, this has been an issue that is a proper subject of negotiations, but one that they simply will not address.

And it is not only negotiable, but mandatorily negotiable. And they refuse. That is the essence of bad faith. That is the essence of greed. Their hands are in our pockets, and they blame the state instead of looking in the mirror.

Again, we are not talking about getting rich. No one goes into public education to get rich. We are talking about ending an immoral non-negotiated involuntary refund of wages. We are talking about having a year or two where maybe, just maybe, the people we entrust our children to can see an actual raise, and not a loss of net pay.

So while our contract does not obligate us to appear for any evening event, we show up. Year after year, we show up. We volunteer, out of a love for our students and a shared sense of mission. We know these nights benefit our parents, our students and our relations with both. But we are volunteers.

Unlike other districts, including some near to us, we will never refuse to provide college recommendation letters — despite the fact that even this is totally voluntary. We care too deeply about our students to put any part of their development and progress at issue.

While we are sincerely sorry for any inconvenience, the BOE’s stance has forced us to take a stand that we would rather not take; we must stand united.

This statement comes from the West Orange Education Association, which is led by President Mark Maniscalco.