After a group of more than 100 educators marched in protest outside the school district offices before Monday's Board of Education meeting, several residents expressed their mixed feelings on the protracted contract negotiations.
Members of the Warren Township Education Association have been working under the terms of a contract that expired in June 2010, as the union negotiates with the board of education. A meeting with a state-appointed fact-finder has been scheduled for December; the fact-finder will issue a report with recommendations after the meeting but neither side is required to accept the recommendations.
In the interim, the two sides are lobbying the public in attempts to explain thier positions—but many parents are feeling frustrated in the process.
"I don't think supporting your teachers or supporting your board have to be mutually exclusive," one parent, who asked not to be identified, said at the meeting. She also responded to criticisms of the board charging its members with not being transparent enough with the negotiations, noting "They (board members) are parents and they work for free and their intention is not to 'get 'em'; they're not saying 'Let's make education suck in Warren.'"
Ironically, after board President Gregory Przybylski made an effort at being more transparent at the Sept. 27 meeting, the WTEA took issue with his statements — which led to additional clarifications by Dr. Przybuylski, Monday.
In response to the WTEA's complaint, he said the board has followed legal advice on how much information can be made public, adding, "We have reached an impasse stage as all of you are aware...and the confidentiality rules change."
"We have offered a two-year package that is consistent with recent settlements," Dr. Przybylski said. "The priority of the parents and taxpayers was to retain the reasonable small class sizes that is one of the main attractions of the Warren school district...We are unwilling to risk changing that situation where its not necessary.
"Obviously, if we were to accept a settlement higher than the 2 percent annual tax levy cap, then the major consequence, albeit unintended, would be sacrificing teacher positions and increasing class sizes because most of our budget is in compensation and benefits," he added. "We appreciate the difficult times that everyone faces; we very much respect the efforts that the teachers continue to provide the students of Warren Township and the board remains eager to settle, but we have to settle within the realistic financial situation that not just our township is, but the entire country is currently in."
During the board meeting's public comments, the resident mentioned above said she made a spreadsheet to compare what she knew of the positions of the board and the WTEA, and said "It doesn't amout to anything."
"And I can see now why the union is so upset," she said. But she added, "Let's not forget the fiscal conservatism of this board saved us so much through the years.
"I would love to see us...sharpen our pencils a little more with this cap in place, but I don't see a stalling tactic because we can't give the whole cap or we have then we have to lose teachers," she added.
Her conflicted feelings were echoed by Raspberry Trail resident Lisa Checcio, who said she grew up in a union household and appreciates the suppport they provide, but added, "I wish we could pay the teachers more...however, unfortunately, given the global economic crisis, everyone across the board is getting a pay cut and i understand it's very difficult."
She said she believes many parents are disappointed in the teachers' lack of communication on class and lesson plans available thorugh their wesites, whch she said she relies on to help bolster classroom projects while her children are at home.
Both also criticized union members' decisions to wear black attire as a show of unity, which they said frightens their children. "For children to come home and worry that someone has died just sends chills," Checcio said.
She also said it was "great that the teachers and parents are outside picketing—I think that's respectful and I think everyone has that right."
"It's very tricky, given the economy—I just don't know how it's going to pan out."
Barbara LaSaracina, a teacher in the district and a resident, said she thought the board should consider reducing the number of teachers, noting some are not working well and that "no one would shed a tear" if they were eliminated.
But, she said, the ongoing negotiations and ill-will created by the issue has "tainted" relations and many of the best teachers will leave the district.
"I am disgraced and embarrasesed that those teachers have to walk around out there," she said. "They are demoralized and this well is so tainted right now; you never lose the people you don't want, they aren't going anywhere. You have outstanding teachers, treat them with respect and pay them accordingly."
Before she spoke, her husband Frank asked how many negotiating sessions were held over the summer months. Sue Burman, head of the board's negotiating committee was not present, but board members said they believed a session was held in June.
"It would appear that getting this settled is not a priority for this board," LaSaracina then said.
Prior to the meeting, the teachers had engaged in songs, and chanted while marching around the offices. Several taunted board members as they arrived, urging them to settle.
"We'd like the board to come to the table with a contract that is fair to our members," WTEA President Fran Blabolil said. She said the demonstration showed the WTEA members' support for the union's position and that they will continue to make such public demonstrations.
The WTEA also announced the launching of social media sites on Facebook, as well as a Twitter feed (@WarrenNJTEA) for those interested in following developments and announcements from the union.