NJ Teachers Face Reduced Raises and Wage Freezes

Pronounced break from past as school boards seek to close budget holes

As schools look to layoffs and other steep cuts, New Jersey school districts and teachers unions are beginning to forge new contract agreements that include some of the smallest salary increases in memory.

An ongoing review conducted by the New Jersey School Boards Association has found 66 districts in the last two months either reopening teacher contracts or settling new ones with reduced increases, if not outright wage freezes.

One-year freezes for teachers were reported from Millville to Metuchen to Sussex, for instance. Montvale reported a wage freeze for this year and 2.5% increases in 2011-2012. Palmyra will have two more years of 2.5% after this year’s wage freeze.

Not all are so low, and scores of talks remain unresolved. But the early trend in settlements appears a big break from the previous several years where teacher raises hovered between 4% and 5%, not to mention double that in years dating back to the 1980s. That growth through the years has lifted New Jersey’s teachers pay to be among the highest in the nation, with median salary for K-12 districts just over $60,000.

“I’ve been here since 1979, and during that time, we went into the double-digits in terms of increases,” said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the school boards group. “Just going into single-digits was an accomplishment. What’s happening now, we’ve never seen it this low.”

A total of 117 districts had seen some kind of reduction or concession from its personnel, including administrators or other staff, according to the association’s review.

The New Jersey Education Association, the statewide union, agreed that some settlements are coming at unprecedented lows. The union continues to advise against reopening contracts but realizes these are not normal times.

“As everyone knows, these are really difficult times,” said Steve Wollmer, an NJEA spokesman. “Nobody is printing money out there.”

Still, Wollmer said it’s a relatively small sample as nearly 200 contracts expire this year; dozens of other pacts that ran out last year that are still under negotiation.

“I think people are holding back until we see what the final money will be,” he said. “I think once the state budget is settled, you’ll see a real logjam.”

There are a couple of outliers as well. Last month, Jersey City settled with its teachers for a four-year deal ranging from 2.88% to 4.34% each year. Plainfield reached a three-year deal that would pay 4.25% retroactively for last year, 2.5% for this year, and 3.0% for next year. At $53,000, Jersey City’s median pay this year was among the state’s lowest for K-12 districts. Plainfield’s median of $66,000 was above the state average, but still well below the high of $88,700 in Ocean City, according to the state’s data.

Still, there is clearly pressure on districts and unions, as schools are forced to eliminate positions and cut programs under the weight of unprecedented state aid cuts and reluctant local voters. Gov. Chris Christie has also called on teachers unions to make concessions, even offering cash incentives to those that agree to wage freezes.

Red Bank Borough was one of the early ones to follow suit. Even before the April school votes that saw 58% of budgets rejected, Red Bank Borough’s teachers union reached agreement to a one-year wage freeze, plus sub-3% in the other two years of the contract. The median pay in Red Bank this year was $49,100, well below average for even K-8 districts.

The deal came after the local school board rejected an earlier contract agreement that would have brought increases in the 4% range each year.

“The whole environment changed,” said Laura Morana, the district’s superintendent. “It was not an easy period for either side to have this all play out so publicly. We had to speak about how otherwise many of their colleagues could lose their jobs.”

Still, even such a dire threat hasn’t broken the ice in every community. In Edison, one of the state’s largest districts, the school board and teachers union started talks before the school elections to reopen the contract and find savings. Edison’s teachers are on the high end, with a median over $77,000, according to the state.

The teachers union offered a freeze, but only with a change in how it contributes to healthcare premiums; the school board countered with its own proposal on healthcare benefits. But even after local voters rejected the budget that already called for eliminating 100 positions, an agreement was never reached.

“Because nothing happened, now we face a $6.2 million increase [in teacher payroll costs] for the coming school year,” said Gene Maeroff, president of the school board.

The projected cuts are now up to 300 positions, he said, following the municipal council’s mandated review of the defeated budget and its demand for another $6.5 million in reductions.

The school board meets Tuesday night to vote on how they will be made.

“It’s been very difficult, absolutely,” Maeroff said. “It’s going to be a long meeting.”