Neither side could even agree about what was said at prior public meetings, although tempers did not flair, and for the most part, the ritual monthly protest was shorter and less well attended than in the past.
Teachers and secretaries in the Bayonne School District have been negotiating for a new contract since the last one expired three years ago.
School officials claim cuts in state aid made it impossible to meet teachers’ demands. Teachers’ representatives claim the school district should rearrange its priorities in order to offer an acceptable package.
While both sides have gone public with their sides of the story, nobody can agree on the details.
Alan D’Angelo, president of the Bayonne Teachers’ Association, said the district offered a zero- percent increase the first year, and a freeze the second year for teachers at the top of the salary guide. At the same time, he said, the school district awarded a 2-percent increase to some of the top-earning administrators, which has teachers crying foul.
The district also wants to increase the number of steps (years) it takes a teacher to get to the top wage, although both sides disagree even about that, the school district saying it wants to add two years to the guide, while D’Angelo said it is adding more than that.
The step guide is currently at 15, and the district says it wants to expand it to 17. By accepting the guide, teachers agree to get lower salaries for the early part of their careers, and then get rewarded later. The point at which their salaries more dramatically increase is called “the bubble” and arrives around year 12. By adding two steps, the school district reduces some of the impact of these increases, so a teacher may see half the raise he or she might have received under the existing guide in that year. The problem for teachers is that raises are cumulative. So that a teacher actually loses a significant amount of money under the proposal, although the two sides dispute that.
The protest continues
Wearing red t-shirts with white lettering bearing the slogan: “You can’t put students first if you put teachers last,” teachers, students, and the general public filled many of the seats of the high- school auditorium, although not all of them came to protest. Ironically, the meeting also set aside time to honor teachers and students for their achievements in state and national programs over the last few months.
But the slightly chilled room soon grew too hot as teacher after teacher came to the podium to read arguments and plead for a contract offer they can live with.
This has become a monthly ritual and a frustration that has led many to increasingly extreme rhetoric, hoping to move the apparently unmovable hearts of the board who have, month after month, claimed that the school district cannot afford increases.
This time the local teachers were bolstered by union officials from the nearby Jersey City School District.
Ralph Agusto, a member of the Jersey City Education Association, said he had come to support the Bayonne Teachers, and wanted to know how administrators could get a two-percent increase when teachers did not.
“I understand many factors in contract negotiations,” he said. “But you’ve already reached a contract settlement with paraprofessionals and custodians. Why not teachers?”
He urged both sides to come together in good faith.
“This contract is about dignity, not dollars,” he said.
Although clearly, for many of the teachers, who have spoken in the months prior to this, it is all about dollars and their claims that they need to work other jobs to pay bills.
The contract offer, according to school officials, would freeze salaries for the first year of a four- year contract, and then offer slightly over 2 percent over the remaining years. But it would add two years to the salary guide that delays teachers’ ability to reach maximum salary until after 17 years.
Tell the truth?
Teacher Joe Wyatt, who has become a familiar speaker at these monthly events, challenged the board and its public release of information, claiming teachers were misquoted.
He said teachers never demanded the increase in class sizes, the laying off of 120 teachers, the elimination of all sports teams and after-school extracurricular events, or that the district increase taxes, as stated in literature issued by the school district.
“Every one of those things is a lie,” Wyatt said.
School officials said the quotes used for the release accurately reflected rhetoric from previous heated meetings.
Wyatt argued that teachers wanted the district to reprioritize how it spends money.
The school district increased the recently approved school budget by the two-percent maximum allowed by the state but did not increase the budget in the prior two years, a possible way for the district to find funding for what teachers see as a fair contract.
But this would raise taxes, a point that D’Angelo did not dispute, saying that schools are funded from three sources, state and federal government, as well as local taxes.
But this is where the agreement ended, because he and Board President Will Lawson were at odds as to what the total impact would be. D’Angelo claimed a two-percent increase in the budget to fund teachers’ salary increases would amount to less than a one-percent increase in overall taxes.
School officials said the Board of School Estimate, to whom the request was made, does not have the power to raise the budget, but rather a tax levy, and a two-percent increase in the tax levy would result in a 2.33-percent increase in what taxpayers pay.
A campaign issue?
As if matters weren’t confusing enough, Leonard Kantor—who some believe will be running for mayor next year—weighed in with facts of his own, but made one very accurate commentary that some teachers behind the scenes had noted.
“This place should be jammed and it’s not,” he said. “If you want something you should fight for it.”
Kantor said that the city had received $135 million from the Port Authority for the sale of the former Military Ocean Terminal. Over the same period the teachers could not settle their contract, and he asked where the money is going and why the city was not helping make up the difference in loss of aid with so many millions coming in.
Lawson tried to explain that the city could not simply fund the schools in that way, and that there were specific mechanisms for funding the district.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.