By SARAH KLEPNER
More than two years into a drawn-out negotiation process, including almost a year-and-a-half of slow-paced mediation, Red Bank Regional High’s teachers’ union and the board of education were once again face to face Thursday night.
The first bargaining session in months, held behind closed doors following a regular board meeting, capped a rather dramatic couple of weeks in which teachers gathered several times in silent displays of unity at morning drop-offs of students.
There’s been some he-said, she-said. A letter written by President John Garofalo of Red Bank to the faculty of the school describes foot-dragging by an union official. The New Jersey Education Association in turn rejects Garofalo’s account, and calls out the board for interfering in the functioning of the union by making such claims.
Some distance between the board and the union is traceable to the beginning of negotiations, in February 2011, said RBREA vice president Katie Blackwell. Earlier this week, she recalled that the union had asked first for an informal meeting, without the board attorney or the NJEA rep present, but the board was unwilling to grant it. She noted that when she was last involved with negotiations, some years ago, talks did begin informally, but this was the second contract in a row that began on a formal note.
Mediation began in November, 2011 when the union filed for an impasse with the Monmouth County Superintendent, Blackwell said, because while some meetings were taking place, the two sides were not on the same page.
At the same time, officials on both sides acknowledge negotiations are taking place in a changed economic and political environment.
Superintendent Jim Stefankewicz pointed to the imposition of a state-mandated two-percent cap on budget increases, a 33-percent drop in state aid and increased costs as primary factors shaping the terrain.
Both Stefankiewics and Blackwell spoke of seeing in recent years a deliberate shaping of public opinion against educators in the political arena.
“There was an atmosphere going in [to negotiations],” Blackwell said. “Public opinion in New Jersey has been impacted as anti-public school teacher… by the state’s actions against teachers.”
Stefankewicz agreed. “For the past couple years, it’s been a political maneuver to try to vilify educators for a variety of reasons. It’s ok to spend billions on sports arenas, though? It’s a little off. Where are our societal priorities?”
The outcome of Thursday night’s talks was not immediately available, but leading up to the sit-down, both sides expressed optimism.
“We are very happy and hopeful that it leads to a settlement,” said Stefankewicz.
“Hopefully, a memorandum of agreement can be reached that we can bring to our members to ratify,” said RBREA President Mary Karlo.