- Associated Press - Saturday, September 6, 2014

PLEASANTVILLE, N.J. (AP) - Teachers in Egg Harbor Township returned to school this week working under a contract that expired in June 2013.

The union and school board have been through negotiations, mediation and fact-finding without a resolution, and this week met with a so-called superconciliator, which did not result in an agreement but did generate a proposal that is keeping both sides talking.

“Every step is a move forward,” EHT board member Thor Himley told The Press of Atlantic City (https://bit.ly/1CCgFgq). Himley chairs the negotiating committee.

“We have a lot of questions, but at least we have something to discuss,” EHT union President Kathy Waszen said.

Teacher contract negotiations are rarely easy, but as casinos close and homeowners revolt against property-tax hikes, local school boards are under increased pressure to control costs, especially salaries, which make up the majority of the school budget.



Statewide teacher salaries will increase an average 2.4 percent in 2014-15, a slight increase over the 2.3 percent average increase in 2013-14 according to data compiled by the New Jersey School Boards Association, or NJSBA.

This year’s increase is far less than the 4.23 percent average increase in 2009-10, but salaries have still continued to rise steadily.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, New Jersey’s estimated average teacher salary of $68,797 in 2012-13 ranked sixth-highest in the nation. The national average teacher salary that year was $56,383.

This year, at least 320 New Jersey school districts will have starting-teacher salaries of more than $50,000, according to data compiled in June by the New Jersey Education Association. Five years ago, just 53 districts had broken the $50,000 barrier. At least one district, Freehold Regional in Monmouth County, is breaking the $60,000 barrier in 2014-15 with a starting salary for new teachers of $60,050.

Salary guides are negotiated locally and vary widely by district. The NJSBA reports that about 24 percent of settlements include some type of salary concession such as freezing or eliminating longevity payments, freezing stipends and restructuring the salary guide to reduce increment costs.

While Ocean City’s starting salary in 2013-14 was listed by the NJEA at $47,777, putting the district in the bottom half statewide, the district in 2012-13 had among the highest average teacher salaries in the state at $89,400. The district has a new tentative contract agreement, which the school board is scheduled to ratify at its Sept. 24 meeting, school board Administrator Pat Yacovelli wrote in an email.

While salaries are increasing, by law, teachers are also contributing more toward their health insurance premiums and pension plans, which has offset some salary gains.

Almost 70 percent of the districts in which contracts expired in June still have not arrived at a new settlement, according to the NJSBA. About 35 districts with contracts that expired in June 2013 are also still not settled.

While it’s not unusual to have a large number of unsettled contracts in the fall, negotiations have been tougher. And while all negotiations are local, they are influenced by the state’s slow recovery from the recession and 2 percent cap on increasing the local property-tax levy.

“It is still a very tough environment,” NJEA spokesman Steve Baker said. “But each contract is done locally, and there are a lot of different approaches.”

Locally, Brigantine, Egg Harbor Township, Estell Manor, Margate, Port Republic and Weymouth Township are still in negotiations.

The Atlantic County Special Services School District and Ocean City have tentative agreements that are expected to be ratified this month.

Hammonton, Mullica Township, Cape May Technical High School and Upper Township have approved new three-year agreements.

Teachers in Mullica, where the contract expired in June 2013, will get a retroactive salary increase for 2013-14 of 3.25 percent, then 2.45 percent this school year and 2.5 percent next year, according to a report published after its approval in August.

At Cape May Technical School District, the average salary increase will be 2.5 percent in each of the three years, with no other substantive changes, Business Administrator Paula Smith said.

In Upper Township, salaries will increase 2.25 percent, 3.15 percent and 2.5 percent over three years, business administrator Laurie Ryan wrote in an email. The contract also eliminates two of the longevity steps, moves to a less expensive PPO health plan and changes prescription co-pays.

In Hammonton, which settled in June, salaries will increase 2.6 percent for 2014-15, then 2.8 percent in each of the next two years. All new non-tenured teachers and non-certified staff will receive only single and not family benefits, and longevity pay is capped at $500.

In Egg Harbor Township, where both sides rejected the fact-finder’s proposed settlement in June, the issues still in dispute include salary, tuition reimbursement, a longer school day and a change of insurance plans. While neither party would discuss details, they said the state superconciliator, Martin Scheinman, presented a proposal that did not just repeat the fact-finder’s recommendations or favor one side.

“He did take his own point of view, and it is not just repeating what was already done,” Waszen said. “We’ll see if it’s something we can work with.”

“I can’t say if we are closer to a settlement,” Himley said. “But we are hopeful.”

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Information from: The Press of Atlantic City (N.J.), https://www.pressofatlanticcity.com

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