On Tuesday evening, the Howell Township Board of Education held a special meeting looking at a possible solution to their contract struggles with the Howell Township Education Association.
The meeting ended with the BOE saying they would approve the new contract ideas put forth by a third-party moderator.
For a while now, the school board and its employees have been without a contract. Issues over pay and health benefits have caused numerous snags in the situation. After numerous meetings where no decision was met, both sides agreed to enlist a third-party “Fact Finder,” James W. Mastriani, to help settle this dispute.
Mastriani received testimony from both the union and the board, and spent a good amount of time trying to find a solution that would please both sides. Although Mr. Mastriani was on vacation and therefore not present at the meeting, his final decision was offered at the meeting, and board members as well as union members responded to his plan.
The meeting began with words from Matthew Giacobbe, the lawyer for the Howell Township BOE. He started the meeting by bringing the audience up to speed on how they came to this point in the negotiations.
“For a while now we have been dealing with various challenges, including a global recession,” he said. “We commenced negotiations with the HTEA 18 months ago, and it was clear after a while that we reached an impasse.”
Mr. Giacobbe then went on to say that as a way to help speed the progress along, the board and union each chipped in $5,000 and paid for a third-party Fact Finder, Mastriani, to look at their situation and see if he could help them out. Mr. Giacobbe said that he was selected due to him being “one of the most experienced arbitrators in New Jersey.”
“Mr. Mastriani was given 116 submissions from the board, as well as numerous submissions from the HTEA, and he reviewed all the submissions and issues prior to making a recommendation,” Mr. Giacobbe said.
Mastriani’s findings were submitted to the board and the union on May 23, and from that date, the board and union have 20 days to formally make a decision on whether or not to accept his contract ideas and ratify a new deal. If a decision cannot be reached, then a Super Conciliator will be enlisted to help the two sides reach an agreement.
The findings, which were distributed to all in attendance at the board meeting, are also available online at the school’s website. Giacobbe noted that he has dealt with many of these negotiations in the past and most have come to a simple truth.
“If one side of the table is jumping for joy and the other is upset, then the negotiations are not fair,” he said. “However, if both sides are a little disappointed, then the settlement was probably fair.”
Looking over the new terms of the contract set up by Mastriani, Giacobbe explained that the biggest change Mastriani offered was changing the scale of how teachers are paid.
Currently, teachers' contracts are set up on a 15-year scale. Every year they teach, they move up a step on the scale, as well as receive an increase in pay. For example, for a first year teacher with a Bachelor’s Degree, under the current deal they would be making $44,475. The following year, they would receive a $500 increase, and this increase will vary based on how long they teach for. This would continue for 14 years, until they reach the final stage, where teachers would receive a $27,000 increase in one year.
Under Mastriani’s plan, rather than 15 steps, there would be 21 total steps. Due to the larger amount of steps, this means that the large increase teachers see at year 15 would instead be spread out over more steps, so instead of having a large sum bump in one year, teachers would receive $5,000 increases for the last few steps of their contracts.
Board President Timothy P. O’Brien noted this deal would help the district save money, and he also noted that Mastriani put into his plan that teachers would be able to move up a few steps per level, that way they would not be losing too much money due to this plan. This means that a teacher at step 11 could end up at step 15 under the new deal, that way they would not lose money in their contracts.
Following comments by several members of the board, many in the audience took time to address the board and express their feelings on the matter.
Bill O’Brien, of the HTEA, said the organization has looked over the document since it was crafted and distributed two weeks ago, but they had several questions about various aspects of this new deal. However, these questions were unable to be answered at the meeting, since Mastriani will be on vacation until this weekend.
“Tonight, we are unprepared to either accept or reject this agreement,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We just want clarification on a few issues with this contract.”
Others who spoke displayed a bit more displeasure to the board, noting that with this proposed agreement, some teachers would be losing hundreds of thousands of dollars by not moving up to their next pay grade immediately, and others argued that the pay increase was so slim it would hinder their abilities to send their children to college.
At the conclusion of the public portion of the meeting, the seven board members in attendance unanimously decided to accept this report by Mr. Mastriani, and the meeting was adjourned.
The next step in the process is for the HTEA to discuss this report with Mr. Mastriani. If their questions are answered in a way that is agreeable to the members the two sides can go on to working on signing a contract.
However, if the HTEA disagrees with this new plan, a Super-Conciliator will be brought in and the two sides will go back to the drawing board.
The regular meeting of the Board of Education which was scheduled for Wed. June 6 has been cancelled and the board will now meet next Wednesday at Middle School North at 7 p.m.