More than 200 people answered the call to come to the March 19 meeting of the Board of School Estimate to make their case for a teachers’ contract.
After months of banging their heads against what seemed like an uncompromising wall of the Board of Education, teachers tried to make their case to Board of School Estimate, which includes the mayor and two council people.
Although some contained their outrage over not being able to settle on a new contract after three years, many overflowed with accusations that included everything from blaming the contract failure on sexism to accusing members of conspiring with Republic Governor Christopher Christie – who has blamed teacher unions for the high cost of education in the state.
The intense rhetoric vilifying the Board of Education has become a painful norm, as the crowd of nearly 200 people – mostly teachers and a handful of parents – railed against what they saw as an unfair contract offer, calling for Board President Will Lawson to be removed as president. But amid cheers and jeers, the crowd saved most of its wrath for Trustee Mike Mazzone, the head of the negotiating committee, whose tough stance the teachers blame for the stalemate.
While the Board of School Estimate’s function – as Mayor Mark Smith pointed out in his attempt to set a reasonable tone to what was soon to escalate into more of the same frustrated rage – was to serve as a watch dog for the public and taxpayers, who because the board is appointed does not get its chance to vote on the budget or look out for its own interest as taxpayers.
Smith said this was one of the most difficult things he had to do as mayor, knowing, he said, the value of a quality education.
“My own children attend our schools,” he said. “But only someone stranded on a desert island would not know that we are stretched to the breaking point financially.”
Raise taxes to give teachers raises?
The Board of School Estimate held its workshop to review the $121 million budget of which almost $60 million must come from local property taxes, a 2 percent increase from last year.
Teachers Union President Alan D’Angelo has proposed that the schools raise taxes enough to cover the cost of providing what he called “an adequate contract.”
At the core of the dispute are higher salaries offered to more experienced teachers as part of a salary guide negotiated during better economic times when state aid flowed into the school district.
In accepting the 15-step guide, teachers agreed to work for lower salaries early in their careers for the promise of greater benefits in the last three or four years. This allowed the school district to hire new teachers at reduced costs to meet rising demands due to increased enrollments. Although once mandatory, court rulings determined since that school districts no longer need to abide by those salary guidelines. Because many of those teachers who have reached the point of getting the large payoffs aren’t getting them because of the lack of a negotiated contract.
With aid drastically cut, school officials find that they can’t afford to pay the increases as dictated by the salary guide. The school district has offered a contract that gave no basic increase in salary for the first year, zero increase for some teachers in the second year, and at least two added steps to the salary guide that would postpone the larger payoffs to more experienced teachers.
Teachers are balking at the proposed changes and meetings have largely resembled fishing exhibitions in search of wasted money and a perceived pot of gold from which the raises might be extracted. Everything from new bathrooms to the purchase of solar panels has been questioned as pointless priorities, while teachers’ salaries remain stagnant.
“Bayonne has been short-changed yearly [in state aid],” Smith said. “We simply can’t afford what is being asked.”
While Smith, as mayor, has made changes that reduced debt and the cost of operating city services since he took over in 2008, the process has been slower than expected. He said the city is making progress, but is still in fiscal straights.
He noted that the school district has not laid off teachers the way many school districts have done as a means of dealing with the downturned economy, and asked for cooler heads to prevail and for everybody to find a way to compromise.
“We simply can’t afford what is being asked.” – Mayor Mark Smith
School Business Administrator Leo Smith, brother of the mayor, said that state aid has increased incrementally since being cut back drastically two years ago, but that increase for the new school year was less than $500,000, while healthcare costs rose by $1 million. With the implementation of Obamacare, the school district will have even more healthcare costs because it will have to provide coverage to any employee working 30 hours a week or more.
Solar power – which had once provided substantial revenue from banks of solar panels installed in 2005 – has crashed. Bayonne schools – which have an average age of 75 years – are in need of maintenance and repair, especially roofs, heating and school grounds, Leo Smith said.
“We are getting little relief from Washington or Trenton,” he said. “We have seen a significant reduction in funding for No Child Left Behind and special needs students.”
Lawson, greeted with jeers from the crowd, said that the proposed budget already imposes a two percent increase in local property taxes.
“We are not taking this lightly,” he said. “We have to be mindful of the impact of the Great Recession and high unemployment and must balance home owners concerns with student needs.”
The economic impact is compounded by the decline in the taxable base as assessed values decline, which equates to less money for schools. The school district over the last three years has also lost $25 million in promised state aid.
“We could have avoided a wage freeze and done the necessary repairs to the schools if the state had maintained aid,” he said.
Despite economic issues, the district, according to Schools Superintendent Dr. Patricia McGeehan continues to improve as student achievement rises, and students receive increasing amounts in offered scholarships and acceptance into some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges. Students have received numerous awards and recognitions.
“Bayonne has been recognized by NJQSAC as a high performing district … which has surpassed the mandated state four year graduation rate by four percentiles.”
She said the district has 9,622 students and is below the per student state average cost by more than $3,000, even as enrollment increases each year.
“Due to the deep recession and financial crisis of our town, our state, our country, and the status of the global economy, this budget continues to be lean,” she said.
Already approved by the office of the Hudson County Schools Superintendent, the budget will be reviewed for final passage at the March 27 meeting of the Board of School Estimate.