Dozens Address Stalled School Contracts in Stafford

Faculty and Staff Contracts Expired in 2016
By DAVID BIGGY | Apr 25, 2018

For the second time since February, hundreds of Stafford Township School District teachers and support staff members on April 19 showed up in force to the monthly board of education to make their voices heard regarding the ongoing time period through which they’ve worked without a new contract.

Following an initial board closed session which lasted just over 30 minutes, nearly four dozen individuals – from teachers and bus drivers to parents and even the teen-age son of a teacher – for nearly two hours stepped up to the microphone inside the Stafford Township Arts Center to speak to the board, some from prepared statements and others more candidly, each expressing the need to settle on a new contract quickly.

As of Monday, April 23, the district’s teachers and support staff members had been working for 662 days under the terms of their previous contract, which expired on June 30, 2016. Negotiators from both sides were scheduled to meet Monday evening, Stafford Township Education Association President Nancy Altman among them.

“I’m a frustrated teacher,” said Altman, a fourth-grade teacher who’s been in the district 33 years. “I presently pay over 10 percent of my salary toward my health and insurance contribution. For the first 30 years of my career, I was able to use the summer months to relax, reflect, revive and rejuvenate. Unfortunately, this will be my third summer that I must work to regain some income lost by the forced Chapter 78 contribution. No rejuvenation for this teacher, and it is truly taking a toll on me. I, along with my co-workers, need a reduction in health insurance contribution. I will never reject paying the same rate as my superintendent of schools.”

Altman was making reference to the legal clause commonly known as “Chapter 78” – the one signed into place by former Gov. Chris Christie in 2011, which allowed the phasing in of increased healthcare contribution rates for teacher union associates over the course of four years. With that law now history following Christie’s departure from office, public school districts have the option to renegotiate those contribution terms.

Altman and dozens of her colleagues in February pressed the board and its negotiators – Vice President Richard Czajkowski, re-elected to the board in 2016, and Patricia Formica, first elected to the board this past November, the only two without a conflict of interest – to go back to the table and give STEA members relief from the old Chapter 78 contribution scale, particularly after the board renegotiated Superintendent George Chidiac’s contract last July, which included a 1.5 percent contribution rate for insurance benefits. Most who spoke at the February meeting claimed to be paying 9 to 11 percent of their salaries toward their benefits.

Dozens behind Altman also spoke to the hardships of paying more for healthcare while under a pay freeze since the previous contract expired, some using their comment time to reference the Southern Regional School District and its higher-paying positions.

“I’m here tonight to talk about priorities,” said Nadine Burgess, a teacher in the district since 1999 and the STEA’s negotiations chairwoman. “This board negotiated a fair contract for Superintendent Chidiac, recognizing his role to the district. It is time to recognize our value, to consider us a priority. You would think the board would recognize the value of our staff, just as they recognize the value of Mr. Chidiac. His salary this year is over $176,000, so that means a premium contribution of just over $2,500.

“Many of our members are paying as much as $10,000 for the same benefits. In addition, our members’ salaries are much less. Our support professionals earn an average of $20,000 to $30,000. The average teacher is (paid) $60,000, for a teacher with almost 20 years of experience. I currently make a little over $57,000 after 17 years of service and commitment to this district. That is significantly less than the starting salary at Southern Regional. That is insulting.”

Teacher and STEA Vice President Jeannine Golderer used her time at the microphone to implore the board to invest in its people, in addition to “stuff that other districts dream of being able to afford.”

“I’m completely discouraged that for 657 days this board of education has allowed us to work under the terms of an expired contract,” Golderer said. “We are an above-average, innovative district in nearly all aspects – all areas, except for how the board compensates the same staff that ensures excellence. How is it we don’t invest in what truly matters and has the same impact in a child’s life – people? It’s time to get the job done. It’s time to get back to a place where we are all part of the same team. It’s time to do right by the students, the staff and the taxpayers.”

Jennifer Martin, a teacher, STEA secretary and negotiations team member, lambasted the board’s negotiations tandem – first Formica for comments made on a Facebook post and later Czajkowski for taking a vacation while the STEA waited for negotiations to continue.

“In a very recent Facebook post, talking about how a board of education negotiations team member had spent three months with blood, sweat and tears ... three months?” Martin questioned. “The STEA has spent hundreds of hours since September 2015. You want to talk about late nights on Facebook? We cannot begin to tell you how many late nights this team has put in the past 2½ years. ‘Begging to get the job done’ was also one of the recent comments. Not once was our team asked to stay and negotiate.”

Martin described a February meeting in which the board and STEA negotiators, along with Chidiac and Business Administrator Dan Smith, had been making progress when discussing contract terms, particularly with regard to Chapter 78 relief. She said once former negotiations attorney Anthony Scarriello arrived, things went sour as a new deal was presented, deemed by Martin as “an insult.” The negotiation teams haven’t met since, and Scarriello, prior to the February public meeting, resigned from his position as the board’s attorney.

“We’re now in late April,” Martin continued. “What has happened between February and today? One board of education team member went on vacation for five weeks and a new attorney was hired. We have begged to go back to the table and we were told no, not without the fact-finder present. But we were persistent and demanded to go back to the table, and finally we have a meeting set for Monday, prior to the next fact-finding session. Has this negotiations team finally made our membership a priority? We demand a deal to be reached, whether we have to sit with you on Monday until the sun comes up, and we want a fair deal and relief now.”

Midway through the comment period, another teacher raised the concern that Chidiac had recently been dismissed from the negotiations and questioned board President Mike Hemenway as to who would make that decision and why it occurred. Hemenway, who as a teacher is not permitted to sit in on any of the negotiation sessions or know the details of such negotiations, explained that the board negotiating team members reserve the right to exclude anybody from the sessions. Formica gave the explanation as to why Chidiac was excluded.

“I wanted to know why the superintendent of schools was giving out conflicting information to the STEA via email,” she said. “I asked him to retract it via email and he did not, so I felt he was hindering the negotiations process. He told you that we suspended negotiations, and we gave him the directive to suspend negotiations until further notice, which never happened.”

In a statement released to the teachers and staff earlier on April 19, Chidiac clarified “a common misperception as it relates to the negotiations process in our school district due to the recent social media commentary.”

“The Stafford Township Board of Education and Stafford Township Education Association have unfortunately not been able to reach a contract settlement,” the statement reads. “As of this date, only two Board of Education members are eligible to be on the negotiations committee and are solely responsible for the negotiations process and settlement. The negotiations committee is required to evaluate any potential contract settlements. The administrative staff, the remaining seven board members and I are not a part of the negotiations committee.”

Several individuals who spoke later urged the board negotiators to allow Chidiac to continue sitting in on the negotiation sessions. It’s worth noting that Chidiac’s and Smith’s only functions, technically, during such sessions is to advise and help provide understanding to either side with regard to certain business and administrative procedures and logistics, so they can better facilitate the negotiations process.

Ultimately, after another dozen and a half individuals spoke to the board, first-grade teacher Jennifer Lowe stepped up, provided some details into a lesson she recently had in her class regarding action and reaction, and asked a crucial question, specifically to the board negotiators.

“My colleagues and friends tonight came up here and are pouring their hearts to you. My reaction is to speak again,” Lowe said. “An action was having our healthcare go up, and our reaction has been giving a  hundred percent every day. The action is having no contract for two years. Our reaction is coming to work every day and giving these kids every ounce of our souls. And tonight, the action is 657 days later without a contract. And so, now, I’m asking the two negotiating board members ... what will your reaction be?”

The immediate reaction – as it had been throughout the public comment portion of the meeting – was Formica applauding along with the audience. Czajkowski listened and nodded slightly.

biggy@thesandpaper.net

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