WEST ORANGE, NJ — The following is a statement submitted to the West Orange Chronicle from the Board of Education regarding the current dispute with the West Orange Education Association, the teachers’ union:
The Board of Education and administration absolutely value our staff but need to find a fair and equitable agreement for all parties as the Board represents all taxpayers. We welcome the opportunity to find common ground and work together on viable solutions.
The West Orange Board of Education is deeply concerned that the West Orange Education Association has decided to violate its long-standing contractual practice of attending Back to School Nights. The Board has also learned that although the Association had already committed to not harming students by still agreeing to provide college letters of recommendation, we have been notified by parents that this is not the case with all staff members. Additionally, the staff under the direction of its union leadership has been directed to boycott the annual districtwide FanFest and the District Band Night for the middle school students this coming Friday at West Orange High School.
Despite the Association’s actions, rest assured that the administration and the Board has and will continue to conduct Back to School Nights as scheduled. Moreover, the Board will ensure that college letters of recommendation are written, and that the District Band Night is properly supervised so that middle school students can attend. Finally, FanFest will occur this Friday at West Orange High School regardless of whether the Association members choose to attend this annual celebratory student event.
The Board hopes that the Association will reconsider its imprudent actions and that all tenured teachers, child study team members, counselors and nurses will honor their contractual commitments and attend upcoming Back to School Nights as this is the most important parent/teacher/student partnership night. Moreover, the Board will require teachers to continue writing college letters of recommendation, which are part of a teacher’s professional duties as an educator.
The Board has been engaged in negotiations with the Association for a successful collective negotiations agreement since May 7, 2015. The parties have reached tentative agreements on a number of issues. Unfortunately, the Association cancelled six separate negotiations sessions on July 30, 2015; Nov. 11, 2015; Nov. 24, 2015; Jan. 28, 2016; Feb. 1, 2016; and June 1, 2016. Further, the Association also informed the Board that they were not available for the entire month of August 2015 due to their negotiator’s vacation schedule.
The Association unilaterally declared impasse on May 26, 2016, and a mediator was appointed by the Public Employment Relations Commission, with whom we met on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. Another mediation session is scheduled for Oct. 10, 2016.
The Board finds it misdirected that the Association is criticizing the Board for the New Jersey state law, which requires all public employees to contribute toward their health benefit premiums. The public should be aware that the Association members receive some of the highest salaries when compared to surrounding school districts. Moreover, the current average cost of health care benefits to the Board for an Association member and his/her family is $35,000 per year. Further, West Orange teachers are ranked the seventh highest in pay out of 103 comparable districts.
The District spent $70.7 million on Association member salaries and $13.8 million on employees’ health care benefits minus the Association members’ required contribution of $3.1 million. Thus, the Board paid $10.7 million for the Association’s health care benefits last year. The two costs equate to 58 percent of the current operating budget. West Orange taxpayers fund 91.7 percent of the operating budget.
Remaining within the annual 2-percent budget cap imposed by law is very challenging when insurance rates increase by 10 percent to 14 percent annually. In an effort to reduce the enormous increase each year, the Board hired a new health care broker who secured an increase of only 8 percent for the 2016-2017 school year. This rate increase benefited the overall health care cost to the Board and out-of-pocket contributions for all district employees.
The Association’s allegation that the Board has failed to promote and hire internally is also completely inaccurate. In fact, the Board has promoted District employees multiple times during the last three years, including two assistant principals at Liberty and Roosevelt middle schools, four supervisors in social studies, science, world language/English as a second language and technology education. Multiple paraprofessionals, many who are residents from West Orange, have been hired as permanent teachers.
At the Sept. 6 mediation session, the Board presented the Association with a salary increase proposal higher than the current settlement rate in Essex County and a health benefits proposal to which the Association has failed to respond. The Board remains hopeful that the parties will negotiate in good faith and strongly encourages the Association members to contact their leadership and demand specific details regarding the Board’s recent salary increase and health benefits proposals.
The Board is committed to negotiating a contract that is fair to the Association members and the West Orange taxpayers.
This statement comes from the West Orange Board of Education, which is led by President Laura Lab.