The Guttenberg Education Association has been working without a contract since the old three-year deal expired last June and have been in negotiations with Board of Education officials since last May. However, at the regularly scheduled Board of Education meeting Wednesday night, GEA president Cheryl Spirig announced that the two sides were no closer to an agreement.
"We have been negotiating in good faith since the contract expired," Spirig said. "We've presented our side, but there hasn't been any movement at all. Since nothing has seemed to work, we decided to declare an impasse and put forth a suggestion to see if something can be done."
The GEA gathered in unison Wednesday night and picketed in front of the school, each wearing a black collared golf shirt, displaying their unity. It marked the second time that the GEA collectively protested in front of the school before the Board of Education meeting in an attempt to stir up more interest to the teachers' plight.
"Our average teacher's salary used to be on par with the state and local average, but now, we're at the bottom of the heap," Spirig said. "We were hoping that we would be able to move ahead, to have parity with teachers in North Bergen and West New York. Ten years ago, we were within $700 of the average salaries in those towns. Now, we're not even close. And we work just as long, if not longer, days."
Although Spirig couldn't give specific numbers on average salary raises within the district, she did quote her own plight.
"The starting salary right now is $30,400," Spirig said. "I've been teaching here for 14 years (as a seventh and eighth grade computer and health teacher) and I'm making $38,000."
Frank Cocuzza, a field inspector for the statewide New Jersey Education Association, said that the current state of Guttenberg's average salaries are a "disgrace."
"They are last in Hudson County in average teacher's salaries," Cocuzza said. "And they keep moving further and further behind. But the length of the school day and the amount of instructional time keeps increasing. So they're tops in time and last in pay? It doesn't make sense. The Board of Education tells us that they can't pay. How do you say that to this dedicated staff?
Added Cocuzza, "It's a stall tactic. They're thinking that we can wait it out. But the ball is in their court now."
Schools superintendent Dr. Robert Penna said that he has not got involved in the contract negotiations, saying that as the "educational leader, it would put me in a very difficult position." Board president Barbara Criscione and member Dr. Michael Baruch have been coordinating the negotiations for the board, along with board attorney John Schettino.
Schettino, who works for the firm of Giblin and Giblin in Oradell, did not return phone calls by press time.
Although the negotiations have reached an official impasse, Spirig is hopeful that the GEA will not have to resort to drastic measures, namely a teacher's strike.
"We're not talking about that yet," Spirig said. "But we can't rule anything out. We're more than willing to meet with the board. We've done everything that needs to be done. They expect us to be loyal and have dedication, but you can't pay bills with loyalty and dedication."
Spirig said that she is hopeful that an agreement can be reached shortly, but it's more than likely heading to the hands of an appointed mediator.
"Both sides are holding fast to what they believe in," Spirig said. "We have to see what happens."
A settlement does not appear likely to happen until after the Christmas holidays, which will mean that the teachers will have worked for four months without a contract in place.