Gov. Chris Christie amped up the budget pressure on local teachers and administrators and called for them to reopen contracts and negotiate pay freezes for school staff to help stave off layoffs and other cuts.
Speaking at a Somerville elementary school, Christie said he sent a letter to the heads of both the state’s school boards association and the New Jersey Education Association, asking for their support of his call for immediate austerity measures (read Governor Christie's letter).
The governor asked for a one-year pay freeze. He also requested that local employees contribute 1.5 percent of their salaries to their health benefits. He said the moves together would provide enough savings to offset all of the school aid cuts proposed in his fiscal 2011 budget.
“It would cover the entirety of the $819 million (state aid) cut,” Christie said. “No layoffs would be necessary, no program cuts would be necessary. And it would allow everyone to feel there is a shared sacrifice.”
The request comes as districts are drafting budgets for next year under the cloud of some of the deepest state aid cuts in memory. On average, districts would see nearly 15 percent of their aid cut from this year, but some districts are losing the entirety of their direct aid and a third are losing at least 20 percent.
A host of districts have approached their local unions to reopen contracts to find savings, but less than a dozen so far have reached new agreements. Final budget proposals are due to the state for review on April 4 and then will be put up for local vote on April 24.
Christie’s letter was greeted warmly by the New Jersey School Boards Association, which had called for the same pay freeze last week as part of a five-point plan for addressing the state’s fiscal crisis.
“We hope that his strong statement yesterday will make local unions receptive to the reopening of contracts,” said Marie Billik, the association’s executive director. “The quality of children’s education is at stake, and all paths have to be taken to enable local school boards to retain school programs to the greatest extent possible.”
But the NJEA wasted little time in chiding the request, leaving the decision to reopen contracts to its local chapters but making clear that it would not encourage such steps.
“In New Jersey, school employees' contracts are negotiated locally, and each local association may decide whether or not to reopen its settled contract,” said NJEA President Barbara Keshishian in a statement. “However, NJEA members will not be bullied by this governor into paying for his misguided priorities.”
Keshishian again called on the governor to extend the surtax on those making $400,000 or more, a move that would recover about $1 billion for his upcoming budget.
The state school boards association has called for the same surtax extension, although it did not do repeat the request in its latest support of Christie’s announcement.