Jersey City school board inks 4-year contract with teachers

But the new measures will have "zero impact" on a deficit-burdened budget

Two years ago, teachers in Jersey City went out on strike. This year they settled contract talks without one.
Two years ago, teachers in Jersey City went out on strike. This year they settled contract talks without one.

At a time when Jersey City public schools may suffer dramatic personnel cutbacks due to loss of state funding, the Board of Education has come to an agreement with the local teachers union on a four-year contract.

The agreement would have no salary increase for the first year. It would also stop increases in the salary steps for the first year for most teachers.

“We got these guys to agree on a freeze of salary for one year for the first time,” said Board President Sudhan Thomas.

This comes at a time when the school district may be forced to lay off as many as 415 staff members, many of whom would be teachers.

The teachers contact runs from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2023. Teachers work on a step process, which allows a district to hire them at relatively low wages during the early years when teachers have the least experience, with the promise of higher compensation later in the process. There is also an increase when teachers get additional degrees.

Under this contract, teachers earning a median income of $74,600 in year one can expect to earn about $95,000 annually at the end of the contract in 2023. But teachers already at the top of the salary guide will see no increase in salary under this contract.

Annual savings

Because of the first year cut, the district actually saves $12 million each year for the rest of the contract.

“If they didn’t freeze, then we would be paying $12 million extra every year until 2023,” Thomas said.

The board also settled agreements with the supervisors union and its noncertified employees.

Thomas said the pay freeze will save the school district about $12 million with additional savings as a result of reductions in other compensation. Some of the other concessions include salary reductions in lunch duties.

Thomas said part of the savings to the district and the teachers came in healthcare. The district switched from an overly burdensome state plan to a self-insured plan that cut the overall cost to the district by $12 million annually, and reduced the cost to employees from 4 percent to 3 percent of salary. A family plan that includes a parent and child or two adults, costs about 5 percent. The contract calls for a $5 increase in employee co-pays, saving the district an additional $3 million annually.

“We spent $79 million on a state plan,” Thomas said. “We reduced that to $65 million, saving $14 million per year.”

Thomas said the insurance agreement has no impact on local taxpayers because of the switch.

“This contract will have zero impact on the budget,” Thomas reported.

Schapiro’s pessimistic

The board voted 8 to 1 for the agreement, with Trustee Matt Schapiro voting against it, on May 2.

Schapiro said the district faces some hard times, and he doesn’t see these agreements as helping to solve the more serious issues.

The district filed suit against the State Department of Education in early May, challenging the $175 million in proposed cuts in state aid as well as the under funding the district claims has taken place since 2009.

“While I have extraordinary confidence in the school’s business office and the administration, I can’t honestly say that the contract will have a huge impact,” he said. “Health costs are going to continue to rise, and the money will have to come from somewhere else.”

The district currently faces a budget gap this year of more than $120 million and has proposed as many as 415 layoffs that include classroom and non classroom employees.

Schapiro said these contracts only increase the obligations the district must meet.

“The fact is we’re not raising revenues,” Schapiro said. While he said the district is restricted by the state from raising taxes more than 2 percent yearly – without going to a public referendum – the city, Schapiro said, is not doing enough.

“We needed to talk to the city about getting the city involved, and to my knowledge those conversations have not occurred,” Schapiro said. “We’re hoping lawsuits can get us out of the mess we’re in, and I do not see that as realistic.”

Schapiro also opposed the contracts because of the timing.

“We announced the contract settlement the same time we announced the lawsuit against the state,” he said. “This wasn’t on the agenda. We did not get a chance to talk about its impact, how much it will cost.”

Schapiro said he is not hopeful that the board will be able to avoid layoffs, increased class sizes, and possible closing or consolidating of schools.

“This contract doesn’t help the situation,” he said. “And this board doesn’t seem to get it, and I don’t think it will until the population of Jersey City starts to feel the impacts. This is a board that is largely supported by the unions. I’ve tried to raise awareness, but my talking hasn’t been enough to compel people to react.”

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