LITTLE EGG HARBOR – As township students and staff returned to school this fall, at least one major issue remained unresolved.
“We are at impasse in contract negotiations,” shared Superintendent of Schools Dr. Melissa McCooley. “The teachers are currently working under their old contract.”
According to McCooley, John Berenato, Assistant Superintendent of Schools has joined her in negotiating the contract. The NJEA has assigned a state representative to participate in the discussions with the local teachers’ union.
Both McCooley and Berenato termed the negotiations amicable to this point. The district has offered teachers a three percent increase with the expectation that concessions would be made in return.
“We asked for one additional day that would bring teachers to 184 days for the year,” Berenato said. “The additional day would be used for professional development.”
The three percent increase would apply to this year and solely pertains to teacher contracts. Administrators and support staff perform their duties under up-to-date contracts.
At the school board’s most recent meeting, Nicholas K. Brown, School Business Administrator, read a statement into the record concerning contract negotiations.
Brown said that the Little Egg Harbor School District offers one of the highest starting salaries for teachers in Ocean County. The average teacher’s salary is $73,000 based on the terms of their existing contract.
“When the Association President says publicly at a board meeting, they want stability,” read Brown. “There are few things in the world more stable than a tenured teaching job in NJ.”
The School Business Administrator also responded to a teacher who spoke at a previous board meeting and called it contradictory to praise the work of local educators without giving them a new contract. He asked if the union members were aware of the offer made by the district.
“Are you aware the board offered a one-year deal with a very fair raise so that we could come back to this year focused only on getting our kids back?” Brown questioned. “That offer was dismissed within minutes.”
Other employees in the district accepted less than three percent raises for their contracts this year according to district leaders. Brown said that other workers in the public sector would “jump for joy” at a three percent increase annually.
Lawn signs with the words “Tell the Board that School Employees Need a Contract NOW” have begun showing up in the township.
In response to a request for comment, Jaclyn Finnigan, President of Little Egg Harbor Township Education Association released the following statement:
“The Little Egg Harbor Township Education Association represents all certificated staff in the district. This includes teachers, nurses and guidance counselors. The Association has its own negotiations committee, made up of teachers, which is chaired by Nora Maloney and Jim McGettigan. We work with NJEA consultants and/or Uniserv reps in an advisory capacity during our negotiation meetings as well as at the table with the Board of Education, however the negotiation committee makes all the decisions.
“In this round of negotiations, talks broke down when the Board presented an all-or-nothing deal to the Association that included major changes to time, duties and pay. These massive asks were extremely costly and the Board wanted all of it for 2.5%, which is much lower than the county average for a status quo contract. When the Association presented the amount of money that the Board proposal was worth, the district shut down talks, told us to take it or leave it and decided it best to file for impasse through PERC. We agreed that it would be best to work with a PERC-appointed third party neutral to work toward a fair contract and signed the jointly filed letter of Impasse.
“At this point the LEHTEA has been working under an expired contract since July 1, 2021. The LEHTEA negotiations team has extended an invitation to continue talks with the Board of Education’s team prior to our second mediation session slated for October 6, 2021. We hope the Board is prepared to enter into talks and offer our educators, who have worked so hard through what is arguably the worst year in education EVER, a fair contract,” the statement concluded.
“It’s my opinion that the representative from the NJEA is discouraging an amicable negotiation,” said McCooley. “We want to settle with the teachers; we appreciate them. We also need to have a fair negotiation.”
However, that’s not how Finnegan sees it at all. She denies that the NJEA has dissuaded the contract dispute from coming to a successful conclusion.
“We are hopeful that the district will arrive to mediation with a fair proposal,” Finnegan said. “We hope that we will not have to consider work actions of any kind, but we will be prepared to do so if necessary.”