(UPDATED: Video of the full meeting at the end)
The Montclair Education Association (MEA) held a meeting on February 25 in the George Inness Annex of the Montclair High School, which the Montclair Board of Education attended. At least that’s how it seemed, as MEA members turned out in the high school’s annex in a standing-room-only crowd and appeared to dictate the agenda of the scheduled BoE meeting. The board managed to present a preliminary budget, but the night clearly belonged to the MEA.
After numerous attempts at negotiating a new contract with the Montclair school board, the MEA is officially at an impasse with the school board. TheB board filed a notice on Thursday, February 21. Sticking points in contract negotiations with the union that the principal items in dispute involve salaries, the return of health benefits for aides, and flexible scheduling.
Montclair Board of Education President Robin Kulwin began the meeting, which lasted over three hours, on an ominous note for what was to come. Mrs. Kulwin had a severe case of laryngitis, and there were technical difficulties with the sound system that made her impossible for some folks to hear. Feedback from the system would periodically pop up for the rest of the night.
“The board and MEA negotiating committees met numerous times over the past year,” Mrs. Kulwin said in a statement. “On February 1, 2013, the parties had concluded a three-day bargaining session, with the MEA cutting the final day short and declaring impasse. In an effort to achieve a settlement, the board provided the MEA with a proposal with the hope that the parties could settle the contract. Despite best efforts, the parties were growing farther apart in their settlement departments, not closer together.” Mrs. Kulwin then explained that a mediator would be brought in to settle the dispute in a matter as expeditious as possible.
MEA President Gayl Shepard disputed the cause of the crisis, explaining that, while she believed the two sides were at an impasse when the MEA walked out early on February 1, the MEA never sought to officially have an impasse declared.
“We waited and waited for the board’s negotiation team to come back, and we actually waited quite a bit in the three days that we were in those sessions,” Shepard told the overflowing crowd. “In waiting and waiting and waiting, when the board came back in, we were not in any way comfortable with here the conversation was.” Shepard told the crowd that she verbally indicated an impasse at that moment, but urged anyone who wanted to talk to her to call her. She said that Mrs. Kulwin called to make the offer to have the board pay for the mediator in the event of an impasse to expedite the process.
“I hope that offer is still available,” Shepard said.
Shepard added that she continued informal negotiations with School Superintendent Dr. Penny MacCormack until February 14, and she again insisted that at no point did the union file an impasse.
The meeting was primarily dominated by additional comments from the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and public commentary lasting nearly ninety minutes. Beth Wilensky, co-president of the Montclair PTA council, was particularly distressed over the situation. She admitted to find the possibility of a strike “very frightening,” and she expressed frustration with how the PTA was being left out of the loop while the school board and the MEA are at odds with each other.
“The PTA should be aware of the decisions made in negotiations,” Wilensky said. “This is the part that upsets me the most . . .. I know we can’t sit at that table. I know we can’t be part of the negotiations back and forth. But to find out from a high school student that the town of Montclair is at an impasse is unacceptable from this town.” She added that she found it unacceptable that the meaning of an impasse hadn’t been explained to her sooner.
The public comment was mostly in support of the teachers, with the crowd cheering and hollering with the zeal of an evangelical congregation while the school board sat silently, taking it all in. Special needs students’ aide Jim Zirilli, a Bellevue Avenue resident, cited the health benefits issue, chiding the board for eliminating his health insurance in September 2011 and forcing him to pay more under COBRA – $22,000 – than he takes home in a year, which expires at the end of the month despite his need for continued medical care. Other residents praised the efforts of the teachers and said they needed more support.
Acting Business Administrator Nicholas Puleio managed to present a preliminary budget blueprint for the 2013-14 school year during the early part of the meeting. The plan, a rough draft contingent on the availability of state aid and mindful of the looming federal budget sequester, takes into account $2.4 million from the $13.4 million fund balance acquired in June 2012 to the capital reserve and $500,000 to the maintenance reserve, with $4.7 million used as revenue in the current school year budget, with a projected fund balance of $2.1 million at the end of June 2013. The 2013-14 budget reduces the overall fund balance by 46 percent and holds the line on taxes, with no levy increases; the operating expenses fall slightly, by 2.23 percent, with a total overall expense of $111.6 million, a 3.32 percent decrease compared to 2012-13. Details are on the school district’s website.
MEA President Shepard took a jaundiced view of the continued surplus, suggesting that the provided an opportunity to restore salary and benefit cuts to teachers, while resident Ira Shaw lamented the emphasis on taxes in public comment, saying that the district cared more about numbers than children.
The board members were mostly upset with what they perceive to be a divisive and insolent atmosphere during the proceedings. Board member Tanya Coke, as a member of the negotiating committee, found the tone of the meeting “distressing” and insisted that the board and the MEA have more in common than not, saying that both groups support a healthy salary increase and the return of the aides’ benefits that Mr. Zirilli cited.
“I do really believe that both sides have a desire to see this contract resolved quickly and expeditiously,” she said.