More than 200 Neptune teachers and their supporters held a rally outside of the Board of Education offices last week while a marathon contract negotiating session was going on inside.
The Neptune Board of Education and the Neptune Township Educational Association remain deadlocked in a contract dispute that has been ongoing for more than two years.
“We had about five or six hours of conversation on Thursday but no settlement has been reached,” School Superintendent Tami Crader said.
She said another mediation session is scheduled for March 26.
Called the Rally For Education and sponsored by the NTEA, the rally was held Feb. 23, from 4:45 to 6:15 p.m. and more than 200 teachers and supporters held banners and chanted while many cars driving down Neptune Boulevard beeped their horns in support.
The association has asked the Public Employment Relation Commission (PERC) to intervene in the negotiations. Salaries and benefits still remain the two main issues keeping the parties apart. Several previous attempts to sit down and negotiate an agreement with the school board have failed so the NTEA Crader said having a mediator is helpful in bringing both sides together for an agreement.
“Right now there is no way to tell how long these negotiations will still take but the school board and administration are anxious for a settlement while still keeping an eye on the tax dollars,” she said.
She added that state aid to the school district appears like it will remain flat with no increases.
Judy Strollo, who has worked in the district for 40 years and is a special education teacher, said she is earning $4,000 less this year than she did in 2016 due to increases health, pension and other costs. Strollo, who joined her fellow teachers for the rally, said the entire contract dispute is “disheartening.”
“When I first started here the schools were a happy place. This is the first time there is adversity and it is very disheartening. They just don’t want to negotiate. We are not asking for a lot and we feel that they don’t care,” she said.
She said the district lost about 150 teachers and other staff last year and that others are planning to leave too.
“This affects the children,” she said.
And NTEA President Pamela Kellett agrees, saying the she hopes a settlement can be reached soon.
“We are exceeding hopeful this will be resolved prior to anyone else leaving the district so we can restore stability. Our working conditions are also the students learning conditions and a lot of turnover impacts out district. The NTEA has been professional the entire time. We have never said anything derogatory and we have been extremely profession, including in the manner we teach our students,” she said.
She said that about 200 NTEA members also live in Neptune.
“We want the district to succeed and for our students to succeed,” she said.
Kellett said the negotiations are moving forward and that if the contract cannot be resolved at the March 26 meeting then the parties will go into fact-finding.
“It is moving ahead according to schedule- mediation is mediation. The NJTA been very transparent and I have no idea when this will be resolved but I am very hopeful it will be prior to the end of the school year,” she said.
Under a new order signed by Gov. Christie, school unions have the option to negotiate up to a five-year contract but Kellett would not comment on that aspect.
“The NTEA is open to thinking outside the box and we want to be very creative in our goals that will stabilize the district. We are looking at our options regarding the future contract,” she said.
Chris Johnson, a field representation for the New Jersey Education Association, said all teachers want is a fair settlement.
“All we want is a fair and equitable contract for the staff and one that reflects their dedication to this community. We are asking for a fair settlement,” he said.
School and association officials had a tentative agreement on June 26, 2015 but the 600-member association rejected it and negotiations are still ongoing. Most teachers are still working under the terms of their old three-year contract, which expired on June 30, 2015. The new contract has been in negotiation for more than two years.
The school board withdrew an earlier contract offer because health insurance costs unexpectedly went up by 25 percent, or by about $900,000. All school employees pay a portion of their medical insurance.
An earlier proposal for a salary increase ranging from 2.8 to 2.9 percent over the three-year contract was also withdrawn after the NTEA failed to ratify it.