By Ron Leir
Harrison public school teachers have narrowly rejected a new contract offer by the Board of Education.
Both sides have been bargaining before the old pact expired June 30, 2014. Teachers are currently working under the terms of the old contract.
One BOE source reported that the vote, conducted last Tuesday, was 84-81 to turn down the offer. The Harrison Education Association, which bargains exclusively for teachers, has close to 180 members.
Asked to confirm the tally last week, HEA President Bill Hartman told The Observer, “That’s pretty close.”
James Doran, personnel director for the BOE, said: “The union sent a letter to the Board of Education to reopen negotiations so we can start over again. I guess we’re back to square one.”
Doran said he was “not at liberty” to disclose the contents of the contract proposal that was submitted to the union membership for consideration, but he characterized it as “a decent package.”
Hartman also declined to talk about the specifics of the contract package but said that bargaining committee representatives for the BOE and HEA had signed a “memorandum of agreement” – along with a revised salary guide reflecting the new contract proposal.
“At the time, we felt it was the best offer we’d get,” Hartman said, “after we’ve been bargaining for nearly two years,” and particularly when the union concluded back in January that “we were at an impasse, but we sat back down down again and ironed out a few issues.”
As mandated by the union’s by-laws, Hartman said that HEA members had been given two weeks to review the contract proposal and, last Monday, the union executive board – whose members also serve as its negotiating team – fielded questions about the offer from the members.
“About 60 showed up and they asked a lot of good questions,” he said.
Members of the HEA executive board – Hartman, Vice President Larry Manning, Secretary Karen Greene Pace and Treasurer Theresa Trucillo – plus NJEA field representative Kevin McHale – were scheduled to meet this past Friday “to see what we have to do to get a contract,” as Hartman put it.
“We think we know where the issues [of concern by members in opposition] lie and we believe we can rectify that,” Hartman said. “I’m not pushing any panic button – yet.”
Hartman said he’s heard “rumblings” from some disaffected members that, “any kind of raise we might get doesn’t cover the contributions for health care [coverage] that our members have to make, as mandated by Chapter 78 [of the Pension & Health Benefits Reform Act signed by Gov. Christie in June 2011].”
Under that legislation, Hartman said, public school employees currently have to pay 1.5% of their salary or 8% of the actual cost of their health care plan, whichever is higher, but that percentage is likely to rise in four years.
A starting teacher’s pay in Harrison is currently “in the low $40,000s,” according to Hartman, and it takes 14 steps (years) for a teacher to reach maximum pay, he added.
“About 51%” of Harrison’s teachers are already at the top step of the salary guide, he estimated.
Hartman said he was “slightly surprised” by how close the contract vote was.
“There were some members on maternity leave who had the right to vote but didn’t come to [the ratification] meeting,” he said, “and there were a couple of people attending a wake in Texas who didn’t make it.”
If both sides cannot work out some type of modifications in the contract terms to the membership’s satisfaction, would the union go for mediation, normally the next step in the labor negotiations process?
Hartman said he would prefer not to file for mediation because the state-appointed mediator simply meets with each side, independently, to learn what the stumbling blocks are – a process that Hartman views as likely not accomplishing anything.
For now, he said he remains cautiously optimistic that an agreement can be reached without going to an outside agency.