School district accused of bullying employees

MTEA wanted contract proposals kept private BY JANE MEGGITT Staff Writer

MILLSTONE — Angry school district employees packed the middle school’s media center for the Jan. 26 Board of Education meeting.

They took issue with the school district posting to the district’s Web site proposals made by the Board of Education and the Millstone Township Education Association (MTEA) regarding current contract negotiations.

The board and the MTEA are engaged in negotiations for a successor contract to the collective bargaining agreement that expires June 30. According to the school district’s Web site, proposals for a successor agreement were exchanged Jan. 14, and representatives from both groups met Jan. 19.

Among the contract changes proposed by the MTEA is a 6 percent salary increase as well as a 6 percent increase in compensation for extracurricular activities, according to the district’s Web site.

The board is seeking various modifications to the current options for health insurance coverage. The modifications may include changing carriers, plans, deductibles, co-payments and/or contributions. The board seeks a reduction in payments for opt-out plans, and wants to increase deductibles and co-payments for prescription plans. The board has also proposed eliminating an income protection/disability plan for employees who waive out of the district’s medical plan, according to the district’s Web site.

The two parties have reached an impasse and are seeking the assistance of the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) to mediate contract negotiations.

Irene Pearson, a township resident, fourth-grade teacher and chairwoman of the MTEA Negotiations Committee, said the New Jersey Education Association is reviewing the board’s post of the contract proposals as a possible unfair labor practice.

“We have serious concerns about the disservice to the community in which the Board of Education has engaged,” Pearson said.

Pearson said the negotiations should not take place in public.

“This Board of Education has sought to damage a process that has worked since 1968,” Pearson said. “Shame on you.”

Pearson also took issue with the board’s assertion that the MTEA favored seeking assistance from PERC after less than two hours of meetings.

According to Pearson, the board told the MTEA to reconsider the 6 percent salary increase proposal or it would file for an impasse before proposing an alternative salary increase and determining any increase in benefits.

Pearson said the board’s posting of the proposals is “a very poorly veiled attempt to sway public opinion, to negotiate publicly, and to bully us into accepting not a proposal, but an edict.”

She said that the district prides itself on teaching students about bullying, but “the Board of Education has used every negotiation meeting as an opportunity to bully and threaten the MTEA.”

“We are saddened by their approach, but we know that our negotiations team is not standing alone,” she said. “The members of our association are standing up to the bullies with us.”

Board President Thomas Foley, who is on the negotiations committee, said it is not in the board’s interest to act as a bully. He said the district cannot afford a 6 percent increase in salaries and benefits.

“We are the residents who have to ultimately pay the bill in the economic times we are in,” he said. “Increasing taxes at such a difficult time is not policy.”

Middle school language arts teacher Arlene Agulnick, president of the MTEA, said that Millstone teachers work the longest school day in Monmouth County. The MTEA is also proposing the district cut the workday by 30 minutes.

Agulnick asked why the board brought a lawyer to the negotiations if the school district does not have money to pay employees. She said she has been involved in contract negotiations for 25 years, and they are always done without outside help until an agreement can be reached for a contract to be put together.

Business Administrator Bernard Biesaida said that board attorney Michael Gross is paid $135 per hour.

Agulnick said negotiations always start with high numbers, like the 6 percent salary increase. She took issue with the board suggesting zero increases in salaries.

“Negotiations are a give and take,” she said.

She continued, “Never before have you gone public. Your perspective is you will keep taking and we will keep giving.”

Foley agreed that negotiations generally start high. He said he starts negotiating at the Consumer Price Index, or cost-ofliving increase.

“We need to find a way back to the center of the table,” he said. “It’s an ugly situation we’re dealing with in many different contexts.”

He invited the employees to the next board meeting Feb. 9 when the school district would be presenting its proposed 2009- 10 school budget.