Proposed Bill Would Use Teacher Givebacks to Help Buy Back Lost Positions

John Mooney | October 18, 2010 | Education
Teachers unions that made wage cuts and concessions could see that money returned to school budgets to help restore lost jobs

Six months after Gov. Chris Christie first called for teacher unions to agree to wage freezes and other concessions, debate still roils about what should be done with that money and what the state can and should require.

The legislature is close to approving a bill that would demand all money saved by freezes and concessions be returned to the school budget to help restore lost jobs.

The teachers unions have strongly supported the bill, and the Assembly education committee last week gave its endorsement for action by the full Assembly this week. The Senate has already approved.

Concessions Are Scarce

But few districts have reached such concessions in reopened contracts, according to the latest data from the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA ), and varying amounts would be saved in each instance.

For example, Medford teachers agree to freeze pay for two months, and reached other concessions totaling $750,000, according to the association’s data. Rahway teachers’ agreed to pay 1.5 percent of salary toward benefits ahead of schedule; tuition reimbursements saved about $475,000.

But wage and benefit concessions only saved Watchung about $150,000, the cost of three teachers, and Kitatinny saved about $105,000 in its concessions.

The school boards association has opposed the measure as restricting its members’ management rights. The Christie administration has yet to say whether the governor would sign the proposed legislation into law.

The debate harks back to the spring, when Christie first called on voters to reject school budgets unless their district and union could reach wage freezes. Only a handful of districts did so at the time, and a majority of budgets were rejected in the lowest approval rate in decades.

Little Financial Relief

The financial condition hasn’t much improved since then, and a few unions and districts have reached new contracts on their own — with some of the lowest salary increases in memory.

But those districts remain in the minority, and few others seem willing to reopen negotiations. The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) testified that just 33 contracts had been reopened this year. The latest unofficial tally from the school boards association puts the count at less than 30.

At the Assembly’s hearing on the measure last week, legislators and others said the new measure may encourage more districts and their unions to reopen contracts. The teachers union said it virtually drafted the bill that would return the concessions back to its members, saying many of its locals have been reluctant to offer freezes when they didn’t know if jobs would be saved.

When the governor called for the wage freezes, “our locals could not answer in a positive way because we were prohibited by law from negotiating the outcome,” said Wayne Dibofsky, a NJEA lobbyist.

He cited North Brunswick’s case, where district and union reached concessions to help save some of the 143 positions eliminated, only to see the budget pass and only about 30 jobs restored.

School Boards Balk

But the school boards association has balked at the measure, saying it encourages such concessions but not the requirement that all the money go back into personnel.

“The boards’ managerial prerogative is to make these tough decisions,” said Michael Vrancik, the association’s chief lobbyist. “To require the balance only be used for one purpose really ties the hands of the boards.”

Vrancik said that nearly every case where there was a reopened contract led to the restoration of lost positions. “I can’t think of a single instance where we didn’t use that money to preserve jobs,” he said.

But legislators, including Republicans, said they wanted a clear incentive in place for unions to agree to giving up their pay increases. “What’s the incentive otherwise when they don’t think any of their employees will be saved,” said Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middelsex), chairman of the education committee.

With the Assembly’s full support expected, maybe as soon as this week, the next question is whether Christie will go along with it and sign it into law. The administration has hedged on its position, but some have questioned whether governor would support a measure backed by the teacher’s union, his self-avowed nemesis.

“I’d hope he’d sign the bill,” said Dibofsky, the NJEA lobbyist. “If it has strong bipartisan backing, why wouldn’t he?”