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Teacher Contract Negotiations: Lean Times and Hard Bargains

State School Boards Association reports new contracts at historic lows, salary increases averaging below 2 percent.

As New Jersey’s school leaders begin drafting budgets for next year, lean economic times are continuing to play out at in the one place that matters most: the contract bargaining table.

The state’s School Boards Association said that new teachers' contracts continue to come in at historic lows, with contract settlements in the last quarter of 2010 averaging below 2 percent in salary increases.

In the first quarter of 2010, they averaged well over 3 percent.

In the meantime, a number of other developments are evident, with concessions showing up in healthcare and length of school day and year, the association said.

And while a non-negotiable item, teacher layoffs are also not far from many negotiators’ minds as new deals are struck. State law prevents the two sides from bargaining over layoffs, but lawyers said both sides are aware that the settlements could decide whether teachers stay or go.

"In this negotiation year, we are really talking about jobs,” said Philip Stern, a Newark attorney who has negotiated on behalf of school boards for nearly 20 years.

The comments came out of a conference held in Trenton on Saturday to help local districts and municipalities cope with the uncertainty of next year’s state funding and devise plans for meeting new caps on local property taxes.

Titled “Collaborating on Real Solutions to the 2% Cap,” the conference hosted by the School Boards Association and the state League of Municipalities drew nearly 200 school and municipal board members and administrators.

Much of the presentations focused on different ways of sharing services across agencies and borders, as pressure mounts on cutting tax dollars. But presenters and others said the toughest decisions with schools will likely rest in the one area that makes up as much as 70 percent to 80 percent of budgets, teacher and other personnel contracts.

And coming off a year where there were an estimated 3,000 school jobs lost and a new year with not much relief expected, the school board officials and lawyers said it has been a bargaining climate like never before.

"I think the state of the unions can be summed up in one word: shock," said Robert Greitz," a labor relations specialist for the School Boards Association. "They have never seen what they have now."

"It’s an unbelievable change from even just two years ago," he said.

That has led to concessions in all areas of contracts, with the association saying four out of five new contracts include union concessions in health insurance, work time or compensation.

Salaries continued to creep up, however, with the average starting pay for this year nearing $50,000, at $47,746. Next year, the average for a first year teacher with a bachelors degree will be $48,445, the association said.

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