SCHOOL BOARD SAYS ‘NO’ TO PAY INCREASES

holcombe-hurdRed Bank Middle School music teacher Holcombe Hurd addressed the school board Tuesday in response to its decision not to approve union pay raises for 132 teachers. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

After a year of contract negotiations, the Red Bank Board of Education, citing an “unprecedented” reduction in state aid and a difficult budget season, voted 6 -2 against a pay increase for the district’s unionized employees Tuesday night.

Board members described the vote as one of many difficult decisions in an economic climate in which Gov. Chris Christie has slashed state aid and forced school districts to use budget surpluses to make up for a loss in revenue.

“All of this takes place in the context of the worst economic period in the United States since the Great Depression,” board member Ben Forest told an audience of about 125 residents and teachers.

The audience did not appear happy. After brief but passionate, and at times, inflammatory, comments, the crowd, after the vote was decided, quickly filed out of the middle school cafeteria as if the last train out of town just arrived.

The board had been bargaining with the New Jersey Education Association, which represents 132 district teachers and secretaries, for about a year, said Superintendent Laura Morana. The union contracts expired in June 2009, and since then all union employees have been working under the terms of its last settled contract. Morana said the union was looking for annual pay increases in a one-year, then three-year contract that broke down like this:

2009-10: 4.1 percent

2010-11: 4 percent

2011-12: 3.9 percent

2012-13: 3.9 percent

Forest said the board “simply cannot afford” those increases.

The two-school district took a hit last week when it was notified that its state aid was cut more deeply than anticipated. After giving its mandatory ration to the charter school — $1.69 million — the public school system is left with $24,000, Morana said.

Take into account Christie’s proposal to cap tax levies at 2.5 percent, plus the mandate to use its $701,000 surplus that was to be used to balance the budget, and the board is left with little wiggle room, Forest said.

Extracurricular activities have already been cut, maintenance reduced to essential or emergency items, and supplies are going to be the bare minimum for the proposed $19.9 million budget, Morana said.

In addition, Morana, along with a few other high-ranking district officials, have voluntarily agreed to a pay freeze, and non-represented staff will be asked to do the same. Christie on Tuesday called for teachers in the state to forgo pay raises.

Much of the anger of the night was directed, on both sides, toward the state’s funding formula for charter schools, which receive 90 percent of their respective district’s budget per student for a specific grade level, according to the state charter school website. Despite Christie’s tough-love approach to so many sectors of the state, the charter schools will still get full funding.

Middle school music teacher Holcombe Hurd, who pleaded for the board to “support the teachers” in spite of Christie’s cuts by approving the contract, spoke passionately in front of the crowd, who gave him two rounds of applause.

“We understand that New Jersey is in pain and we all must make sacrifices,” he said. “But can anybody explain to me how it is a shared sacrifice when the 1,000 worthy students of the real Red Bank public schools deserve $24 per student in state aid and the 180 students of the Red Bank Charter School deserve well over $9,400 for each and every student?”

He went on: “There is no equity in this situation. There is no shared sacrifice. This is an attack on the children I teach and care for every day.”

Board President Peter Noble didn’t disagree with Hurd.

“He’s absolutely correct. There’s no two ways about it,” he said. “I don’t condemn the charter school or the parents who send their children to the charter school. I condemn the way it’s financed.”

The reasons for denying the union contract proposal obviously weren’t enough for Brian Furry, of the NJEA. He took to the podium and flayed the school board.

He said both sides agreed on a contract, and now, at a board meeting and after a “new governor who thinks he’s a bully” laid down his cuts, the board backed down.

“You don’t have the courage to vote for a contract that you bargained with your teachers,” he said. “Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on you.” The crowd erupted into applause.

Furry then proceeded to rip the board, excluding Noble and Janet Jones, who voted in approval of the contract.

“I see two people here with courage,” Furry said, then pointed at board member Carrie Ludwikowski. “I see six cowards.”

Furry refused to comment, or even spell his name for reporters, after the meeting and met with much of the audience out in the hallway.

Morana said the board will have to restart contract bargaining with a mediator as soon as the association is ready. In the meantime, district employees will continue to work under the terms of its current contract.

Anyone interested in serving on the school board is invited to its March 30 meeting for an informational session. Only one board member, Ben Forest, is running for re-election this year and there are two other seats open, Noble said.

“I expect the room will be packed with people interested,” Noble said, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. “I think we can hold that meeting in a phone booth.”

Jim Willis, a founder of the Red Bank Safe Routes initiative, is expected to be a write-in candidate. [Disclosure: he’s also redbankgreen‘s tech maven.]

Those interested may also call 732-758-1500 for more info.