For the second month in a row, teachers protested before the Bayonne School Board at the Jan. 24 meeting about the lack of contract after two-and-a-half years.
His voice hoarse from shouting, Teachers’ Union Representative Alan D’Angelo told the teachers that if they did not do something about the situation now, and continued to perform afterschool and other duties, the situation would not change. He said that raise offered by the school district would actually cause them to lose money, as much as $75,000 for the teachers at the top of the experience scale.
He said the rally – which unlike last month – did not include protesting students, who had tried to win the sympathy of the board. Teachers buzzed as he raised his voice to be heard: “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
The conflict between teachers and the board has been heating up over the last few months as teachers pressed the board to come to an agreement.
The board has offered teachers a three-year contract that would give them zero increase in the first year of the contract, a 2.34 percent increase in the second year, and a 2.41 percent increase in the third, but with the provision that two more steps be added to the pay guide for teachers. Under the current system, teachers are on a pay guide that allows them to reach top pay over a 15-year period, often referred to as “steps.” With the current scale, teachers get a lower payout at the beginning of their careers with the anticipation that they will get the larger payout toward the end of their careers. Currently, this usually comes at around the 13th year or step, commonly called “the bubble.”
Some teachers with as much as 12 years of experience – just prior to the bubble – make about $54,000 or about $5,000 more than a starting teacher’s salary.
Many teachers claim they actually are making less money than they did in the past because changes required them to contribute to their own health benefits and increase their contributions to their pensions.
Under the proposed changes, teachers would be forced to add two more years to the overall guide. In some cases, this could result in some teachers who are still early in the guide getting no increase for the first two years of the contract.
Holding out for a better deal
D’Angelo said if teachers accept the contract offer, they would lose about $73,000 by adopting the new step guide.
“We’re holding out for people on the guide, but you’ll be stuck with this for the rest of your career,” D’Angelo told the teachers.
Some teachers complained that police and fire employees, who use a similar guide, reach top salary at the end of eight years, not 15.
School officials admitted that they cannot afford to pay the increases as proposed, saying that the contract upon which things are currently based hinges on state aid that has since been cut. The state came up with a formula for aid to districts in 2008 that was supposed to continue, but in 2009, it got gutted. This resulted in Bayonne losing $8.5 million out of a $10 million expected increase – not just for one year, but all of the subsequent years.
While D’Angelo argued that the school district should fund the raises for teachers in the first year of the three-year contract, rather than leave this as zero increase, Board Attorney Robert Clark said this was not just a one-shot increase and that the $1 million needed for the first year would result in a $1 million increase for each of the following two years as well.
School officials and some teachers complained that D’Angelo never brought the contract offer back to the teachers, something D’Angelo acknowledged, saying that it was a bad offer and that he didn’t bring every offer back to the union membership.
“We never take every offer back until we feel we have an adequate offer,” said D’Angelo, who said teachers should be considered first before improvements are made to the district. He said he would even find increased class sizes acceptable.
But School Board President Will Lawson said that the district has already put off necessary projects and the purchase of textbooks and technology in order to make up for the cuts in aid.
In some ways, this was confirmed by students at the December meeting, who – while arguing for a settlement of the contract dispute – also complained about lack of technology, older textbooks and other inadequacies.
The contract dispute, D’Angelo said, will come before a mediator on Feb. 7.
“We just don’t have the money that Mr. D’Angelo wants.” – Will Lawson
Emily Shade, a teacher in the Bayonne School District for five years, said she loved sharing her experiences with her students, but wasn’t certain if she could afford to continuing teaching here.
Marie Aloia, who is completing her 10th year of teaching, said she was able to do a lot in the school, especially with a research and engineering program that produced successful robotics competitions and won science fairs twice.
“Meetings like this are like being in the Twilight Zone,” Aloia said. “I hear the snide remarks from students saying they know we’re going to leave.”
Jennifer Cody said of her seven years teaching, only two of them were under contract. “I started when there was no contract,” she said. “I should have run. But I didn’t.”
Edith Doyle said more is expected of teachers today than five years ago, noting that not only do they have to teach, but also often act as mothers, fathers, safety experts, police officers, and other roles.
“Teachers today wear many hats,” Doyle said. “We do not see increased steps in the police and fire contracts. They get to the top pay after eight years. We get there after 15.”
Some teachers said new teachers have to work other jobs early on with the hope that once they’ve proven themselves and reached the bubble, they will get what they deserve, but the new contract proposal asks them to wait two more years.
“The salary guide is a promise made to us that if we did what we were told and did a good job, we would get what we deserve,” said Caroline Fussa. “Now I’m standing at the end of the 14th year with a broken promise.”
Teacher Erin Cook said, “We are not enemies; we want same thing you do. We want Bayonne to thrive. We cannot afford to have good teachers leave the district.”
But school officials say they can’t afford to the increases.
“Bayonne is the most underfunded district in the State of New Jersey,” Lawson said. “The board made a decision that we would have a freeze on the first year of the control and non-movement on the salary guide. This is in reaction to the $8.5 million cut in state aid.”
He said 80 percent of the school budget is salary and benefits, and the only revenue that can make up for the lost aid would be to increase taxes. He said the board decided to avoid layoffs despite the loss of aid. The district also lost about $2.4 million because the price for sale of its solar power dropped.
“We just don’t have the money that Mr. D’Angelo wants,” Lawson said.
D’Angelo, however, disputed the need to raise taxes, saying that the district needed to spend its money widely, and said that a fact-finding report will be issued in about a year that will show where money is spent in the district.