Middletown Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger discusses the “jousting” between the town and district teachers’ union at Monday night’s committee workshop. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi)
By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
At the eleventh hour, Middletown’s teachers’ union responded to Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger’s request that teachers accept a one-year wage freeze.
Scharfenberger said the Middletown Township Education Association rebuffed his request for the freeze, which he estimates would save about $3 million in the failed $140.3 million education budget.
In an effort to save jobs and programs, he requested last week that teachers forfeit a scheduled 4.3-percent raise for the 2010-11 year, and gave the union until end of day Friday to respond.
Instead, the group, which is a branch of the state education association, suggested late Friday in a letter faxed to town hall that town officials go to Gov. Chris Christie and ask him to restore state aid that Trenton cut, Scharfenberger said.
“Naturally I’m disappointed by this response,” Scharfenberger said. Speaking at a township committee workshop meeting Monday night, he added that school board members also feel frustrated by the association’s position, and that its stance is “pretty much a done deal.”
“I’m surprised by the rigidity of the letter,” he told redbankgreen.
Scharfenberger said he isn’t giving up yet, though. On Monday, he wrote a letter in response to the association imploring that it rethink its position.
The stakes are much higher than a pay raise.
Although Scharfenberger wants to avoid more layoffs there have already been more than 120 he said that option is on the table. The township committee, however, doesn’t have that decision-making power. It’s charged with directing how much the school board must cut, and can suggest where, but ultimately the decision lies with the board of ed.
Members of the town committee and school board met Monday afternoon to discuss how to proceed if the association doesn’t relent. Layoffs are possible, perhaps even likely, but Scharfenberger said officials looked at energy and insurance costs, as well as other areas of the budget, to try and trim it down to a palatable level one that has yet to be determined.
“Nobody likes the idea of giving up a raise, but that’s the reality we live in,” he said. “The thought of cutting anymore teachers or anymore programs is gut-wrenching.”
Scharfenberger said there have been teachers in the union who told him they’d accept a pay freeze, but the union won’t allow a vote on it. It’s a position Scharfenberger doesn’t understand for a couple reasons: One, nearby towns that passed their education budgets also had unions that took a wage freeze. Two, in an economy in which many are lucky to even have jobs, Scharfenberger said it’s “unfathomable” and “unconscionable” that the union would fly in the face of what appears to be a popular choice in both the town and the state.
“Clearly the prevailing thought among parents and some teachers is a wage freeze is the way to go. We can look for other cuts, but certainly this is a big item,” he said. “I just don’t see the down side to it. Everybody’s sacrificing these days. I don’t see why they can’t.”
When it came time for the public to comment on Monday night, Jeff Blumengold put the situation in simple, yet accurate terms.
“Ultimately, you’re in a pickle,” he said.
Town and school officials will meet again on Thursday to work on the budget. The committee must order how much in cuts the school board shall make to the budget by May 19.
Meantime, Scharfenberger said he’ll continue his “jousting” with the teachers’ union.
“I want to do this in good faith and really impress on them the value of taking a wage freeze,” Scharfenberger said, “and I’ll do that until the end.”
Read the MTEA’s letter to Scharfenberg here: mtea-letter1.
His response is here: scharfenberg-letter1