A large group of teachers filled Monday's Millburn Board of Education meeting seeking fair and respectful negotiations after the Millburn Education Association filed paperwork with the state saying there was an impasse.
The board has had one formal and one informal negotiating session with the teachers union, according to Mark Zucker, the board negotiations committee chairman. The teachers union presented its first proposal, which he said was "unrealistic" under current economic conditions. The board's negotiating team felt it was not proper to continue negotiating that night and would find a future date for another session, he said.
In his report, Zucker said he and board Vice President Jeff Waters met informally with union leadership last week and felt there was progress.
Scott Kamber, a board member, questioned about an impasse, which is when Zucker said there was paperwork filed at the state level about an impasse and "unfair labor practices." The union was under the impression the board walked away with no intent to come back, he said, but that was not the case.
Kamber further asked Zucker about what the teachers had proposed, and he said the teachers had asked for a 3 percent increase not including the step increases. It means the salary increase would be 5.2 percent. The board had proposed a 1 percent increase including the step increase, he said, and other area districts are settling on 1.5-1.8 percent increases.
"With a 2 percent cap (on taxes) and a more than 10 percent increase in health care, the math does not work out," he said, also saying the opening proposal from the union was shocking.
Additionally, Zucker said, the union asked if school officials could ask for waivers from state officials to exceed the state-mandated cap on a tax increase of 2 percent. It hadn't been considered "because I don't think the public would accept (the waivers," he said. "We would need to argue all (of the extra tax increase) would go directly to the students."
Lois Infanger, the MEA president and the only teacher to speak Monday night, said the opening proposal "was exactly that."
The union's team was optimistic headed into negotiations because board members had "vowed to the community that they would be respectful during negotiations and not create a hostile environment."
"They admonished our team and refused to schedule any future meetings," she said. "The board's team didn't even allow us the opportunity to discuss any of the issues. They didn't even take the time to see if we agreed on anything. This kind of behavior reminds me of a child who doesn't like the playground game, so he takes his toys and goes home."
The teachers work in Millburn and many live in town and send their children to the district, she said. "The truth is we are also taxpayers," she said. "And just like the rest of you, we have taken a financial hit this year. We spend our own money on our school supplies. We are trying to do more with less."
Infanger said the union offered to join the state insurance plan three years ago, which would have saved $2.4 million in insurance premiums. But Zucker, who headed the negotiations team then too, disagreed, saying the union was against entering the state plan. There were 111 people in the traditional plan who would not go over to the POS plan, he said, so it was unlikely they all would go into the state plan.
The union wants to return to the negotiating table, Infanger said. "We can become entrenched in negativity and hostility or we can get back on track toward respect and collaboration," she said.
Zucker said Infanger was mischaracterizing the negotiations. The union had heard for six months the financial issues facing the district, he said, and asking for an increase is inappropriate. Further negotiations could not happen that night, he said, but they wanted to continue to do so in the future.
Waters asked Infanger if the union knew about the filing when they were sitting with him and Zucker a week ago, before the district received it. She said yes. "Actions have reactions," she said.
Kamber said what is happening with negotiations is different than what has happened in previous years, which have been a cooperative relationship between the union, administration and the board. He's now concerned where they are after one week of negotiations and that everyone is being used as "pawns of other games." He wants to reach an agreement that is fair and sustainable.
He wants to see the contract settled before the proposed 2011-12 budget goes to the taxpayers because it will be harder to ask for a tax increase without it. "What we think you deserve is much different than what we can afford," he said.