The lack of a new contract for teachers reached a boiling point Monday night, with hundreds of Ridgewood Education Association (REA) members staging a protest on claims the school board has been "disrespectful" and is not negotiating in good faith.
The tension has been building for months, and teachers have employed subtle and not-so-subtle demonstrations of their upset during the course of the school year. They've held off on walking into the buildings until contractually mandated, and also .
Monday's message cloaked in a shield of maroon red "REA" shirts was the clearest message yet – there's certainly a sizable gap between both parties in the age of 'the new normal'.
"There has been a dramatic change in our public school system," said Patti Canzani, a teacher and 2006 winner of The Ashby Award. "If you really knew what was going on, I don't think you'd approve. At times I think I'm seeing the demise of public education, even in Ridgewood."
According to Canzani, younger members will have to work six to eight years to realize the salary and benefits they would received prior to state laws that went into effect last year.
Canzani asked board members to walk a mile in her shoes, stating Monday night at the Education Center that teachers work well beyond the contractual hours, hours fellow Ashby Award winner Sherry Youngkin said are spent responding to e-mails, meeting with students, writing recommendation letters and more.
Demands have increased, but time has decreased, Youngkin said.
"But when the Board of Education in Ridgewood (2011-2012), that act alone, to me, speaks volumes about the lack of respect that now exist in the school system," she said. "Working without a contract is disturbing to say the very least."
Remarking that previous negotations during her 29 years have gotten testy, teacher said the teachers could always count on "mutual respect."
"Please do not be the first board to diminish what we have built here," Pedersen said. "You know and I know that great schools are the foundation upon which economically viable and successful communities are built. Let's not forget we are all members of the same team."
Members of the board's negotiating team disputed the statement the board has not been negotiating in good faith.
"It is always a process of getting there with give-and-take and discussion," said Trustee Sheila Brogan. "It is upsetting to hear our teachers feel disrespected. That certainly is not what the board wants and certainly not how we have conducted ourselves...as far as I know this board has been supportive of teachers and will continue to do so but we also need to look at the budget – the whole picture – and try to find some compromise as we negotiate this contract."
The union and the board's negotiating committee – Brogan and Trustee Bob Hutton – began the bargaining process 18 months ago to reach a new contract. The previous deal expired in summer of 2011.
School officials characterized the current standoff as "uncharted territory" given the length of negotiations. A state-appointed fact-finder has been brought to facilitate the process, though any recommendations are non-binding.
A 2 percent salary increase for teachers has been budgeted for the , which taxpayers will decide the fate of on April 17. Any more than 2 percent, officials said, would likely mean staff losses.
Negotiations are kept behind closed doors and neither party would disclose what's been laid on the table when asked by Patch, but REA President Maria Cannon pointed to what she felt were squandered opportunities by the board in reaching a settlement.
Cannon, between rousing ovations and a bellowing chant of "settle now!" coming from the teachers protesting in the Education Center parking lot, said the district will be receiving millions more in teacher contributions to health ($2.2 million between this budget year and 2012-2013) that could be put back in the pot; elected to use an $850,000 infusion of state aid on roof work; purchased "tens of thousands" on iPads; and is purchasing a new "unnecessary" $340,000 science program.
"We are looking at a long road ahead if you, the Board of Education, do not appreciate and acknowledge your highly qualified staff by offering a realistic and fair settlement," Cannon said. "We are willing to help the BOE with savings but need the BOE to be willing to share some of those savings with us."
Hutton, who like other school officials said state-driven conversations are largely being pushed to the local level, remarked after the meeting that the board did not believe allocating one-time infusions (i.e. state aid) of income on recurring expenses (salaries and wages) was a wise decision.
Despite the apparent acrimony, said the board is "doing everything possible to move the conversation" forward and reach a settlement, including meeting in formal and informal settings.
Still, all parties acknowledged how disappointing it is the state of negotiations has soured.
"I never, ever thought it could happen here," said Canzani.
The next scheduled meeting between both parties is April 16 with the fact-finder.