Dozens of Montgomery Township Education Association (MTEA) members and supporters wore red and spoke at the November Board of Education meetings about their stalled salary negotiations.
Jennifer Jones, an MTEA vice president and a special education teacher at Montgomery High School since 1999, introduced herself to the board as “a teacher, class advisor, basketball and golf coach.”
“I am also the sole provider for three daughters,” she said. “And I am no longer able to financially provide for them.” Jones started sobbing as she described how its a daily struggle, despite her hard work.
“I have a pay stub here from 2010,” Jones said. “I am now taking home $326 less per month than I was eight years ago!” She was too upset to finish, and a member of the audience stood up to assist her in finishing her speech.
The cost of living and daily expenses have increased, yet many teachers throughout the state of NJ find themselves actually taking home less money, according to the many audience members who spoke at the most recent Montgomery School Board meeting.
Kathy Sinclair, an educator for 22 years, including 19 in the Montgomery district, urged the school board to fairly settle their contract. Sinclair says she chose to serve on the MTEA negotiating team. "I assure you it is not because I have the extra time,” she told the board, “because like many of the people in the red shirts behind me, I juggle two or three jobs beyond my professional work day.”
MTEA is the local affiliate of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), and is the legally recognized bargaining agent for the district’s teachers.
The MTEA website describes the association as “teachers, secretaries, custodians, clerks, instructional assistants, nurses, guidance counselors, speech therapists, and more working to make our schools better.”
A problem for both teachers and the school board is a law signed by former Gov. Chris Christie that required public school teachers to pay part of their healthcare benefits.
The law, known as Chapter 78, brought some relief to property tax payers as school boards struggle with skyrocketing costs of healthcare benefits. The law, effective beginning with the 2011-2012 school year, required school employees to pay a portion of health insurance premiums. The exact amount of the employee share is a function of the employee’s salary and the plan that they choose.
Depending on plan choices and salary, the employee contribution ranges from three percent of the premium to 15 percent of the premium and is never less than 1.5 percent of the employee’s base salary. As a result, teachers have watched their take-home pay decline while the cost of their health benefits contribution increases.
Board President Richard “Rick” Cavalli, says the steep increase in the cost of health care benefits is the challenge. The cost of health benefits has grown 21.6 percent during the past three years, he said.
Montgomery teachers got a three percent raise in year one, followed by a 2.38 percent in year two, and a 2.31 percent raise in year three. That three-year contract ended in June and Montgomery educators have been working without a contract since then.
Another issue that impacts the budget, according to Cavalli, is that the total number of students have shrunk by 48 while the number of educators in the district have grown by 51 in the past three years.
“We wrote a contract with you all three years ago and that contract was expected to grow 7.89 percent over a three-year-period,” Cavalli said. “The reality of it, due to the increase in the number people on the payroll, was that the contract actually rose 10.27 percent. So we paid more on the contract than we originally intended.”
The board agreed to work with the teacher’s union in mediation.
“If we had the money, there’s no reason we wouldn’t give it to you,” Cavalli said to the MTEA.
Board member Minkyo Chenette thanked the teachers in attendance for all they do on behalf of the students in the district.
“You are a second set of parents,” she said. “We value you. Please don’t lose your hope because we are trying.” ■
Look up your teacher’s salary on the NJ Spotlight Website.