Against the backdrop of New Jersey's battles over union rights and collective bargaining, tensions are playing out in local teacher contract talks, too.
More than a third -- or nearly 210 at last count -- of the state's school districts will be starting the year without contracts, according to the school boards association in its annual labor update to be released today.
And of those that have settled, salary increases are getting tighter. The latest are averaging 2 percent, a full point less than all the contracts now in place, the association said.
The number of outstanding contracts is higher than usual for this time of year. Typically, about 150 districts are still in talks when schools open. And more than a third of ongoing negotiations have declared a formal impasse, which means calling in a state mediator, the association said.
Still, it is likely that more agreements will come with the start of the school year. And just because there is no new contract, schools still operate on the previous agreements. The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) spokesman added last night that there did not appear to be labor hot-spots that could bring job actions or other disruptions when schools open.
He added that from the union’s perspective, talks are barely moving across the state, between the new property tax cap and healthcare changes that require teachers to contribute set amounts toward their benefits, taking that issue off the bargaining table.
"It's slow, it's slow everywhere," said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s director of communications. "You have the tax cap, you have people making contributions that they never have before."
"Bottom line, it’s moving slow, if moving at all," he said. "It's a very difficult environment."
The school boards association focused more on the agreements that have been reached, showing smaller and smaller salary increases as the year progressed.
For instance, the average increase for contracts settled since January 2010 was 2.66 percent. In those settled since April of this year, it's 2.1 percent.
"Before last year, the major issue in negotiations was health benefits concessions," said Frank Belluscio, the school boards association's communications director. "The benefits reform act changed that, so that we’re now seeing the two prominent issues as salary and work time."
He said much of the time demands focus on more student instruction and a longer school day, as well as more professional development, including new state-mandated anti-bullying training.
And while healthcare contributions have largely been written into law, Belluscio said almost half of new contracts also have other provisions that help contain healthcare costs.