TINTON FALLS — After months of public debate, borough teachers are hoping to reach an agreement on a new contract prior to 2016.
Cherrie Ronan, president of the Tinton Falls Education Association, said during the Nov. 16 board of education meeting that she’d like the two sides to come to an agreement within the next month.
“It is our sincere desire to settle this contract before the holidays, it will bring much needed peace of mind to our members and enable all of us to start the new year with a new contract,” Ronan said.
However, according to board President Peter Karavites, the two sides still have not come to an agreement and have not yet found a middle ground.
“We are in fact-finding right now, that’s when a third party takes facts from both sides and makes a decision,” he said. “We have offered binding arbitration, whatever the neutral fact finder comes out with we will agree to.”
Union members and the board have been mired in a months-long public battle that has included the teachers opting to take Election Day on Nov. 3 as a holiday, forcing the district to cancel school and parent/teacher conferences.
Negotiations between the district and the union are currently in mediation after an impasse was declared in 2013, shortly after the previous contract lapsed. At the heart of the argument between the two sides is how salary increases should be given to teachers based on their experience.
“As you are aware, members are working under the terms of a contract that expired three years ago,” Ronan said. “During this time, there have been a number of things that have affected people sitting here.
“Our health benefit contributions continue to increase and staff is making less money every year than we are worth. We continue to trail educators in comparable districts with similar years of experience by thousands of dollars.”
Denise Fogliano, a fifth grade teacher at Swimming River School, said the main problem with the current situation is it will take teachers 25 years to reach the top of a 14-step salary guide.
Karavites said under the current system, teachers in the middle of the salary guide receive the largest increases, while teachers with more and less experience receive smaller annual raises.
However, he said the board’s proposal would split the raises virtually equally among all teachers with every teacher receiving about $6,000 in raises over a four-year span.
Kevin Jacoves, a borough resident and Middletown teacher, said the district doesn’t compare to his district when looking at the salary guide.
“If that is the truth, you are undervaluing your employees,” he said. “If I were a teacher in Tinton Falls, I would leave. You want to bring in and retain the best and you have to pay for that.”
Another parent suggested that the board could have used the funds being utilized for the switch to full-day kindergarten for a salary increase for teachers.
Karavites said the board is currently under the constraints of a 2 percent tax levy cap, making a deal with the teachers more difficult.
“We are not allowed to raise our budget as much as the taxpayers would like,” Karavites said. “We are at the 2 percent cap, the public no longer votes.
“We are not allowed to usurp the cap and take it to a vote.”
According to Karavites, a referendum is also not an option.
“We don’t have credit cards, we are not allowed to borrow money,” he said. “We can do referendums, those referendums are usually only for school buildings and things like that. They are never used for salaries.”
Karavites also warned that if the board gives in to the teachers, activities or sports may need to be cut, adding that late busing and increased class sizes have already been casualties of the district’s financial situation.
Karavites said the board should not be characterized as being against the teachers.
“When you think about giving teachers more, and we feel we gave them a very fair offer above cap at 2.45 [increase] for five years, remember that other places may have to get cut,” he said. “We only have ‘x’ amount of dollars to spend.”
The Tinton Falls School District operates three schools: Mahala F. Atchison School, Swimming River River School and Tinton Falls Middle School and educates 1.553 students.