The following is an editorial from community member and Nutley resident “BobR”:
As I put this article up for public consumption, I ask you to consider that I am writing this piece in response to a question first, and, then in the interest of reminding all of our elected public officials that negotiating public contracts should be done with care and in the best interests of all- citizens, taxpayers and employees.
Recently I got a call from a friend who has relatives in Belleville who told him of a recent Council meeting at which there was a discussion of what some say could be a “crippling” tax increase in this current Belleville municipal budget. The question being asked, it seems, got to the point that ‘apples’ were not being compared to ‘apples’, etc. and the discussion came to a disappointing end. My friend, a now retired Nutley teacher, reminded me of and asked about a long-ago negotiations that he remembered, as I was also involved as chairman of the Negotiations Committee of the Nutley Board of Education. I remember it well.
First, let me say that I do not usually like to talk about past periods and positions previously held and compare them to current events, especially if I am not directly involved. However, back in those days, when I had the opportunity to take a great step toward bringing school districts in Essex County together to solve problems common to each, I was happy to do so. The best example that I can give of this was during my presidency of the Essex County School Boards Association (ECSBA), as my executive committee had made it a priority to bring board members, chief school administrators and district business officials from urban and suburban communities in Essex County together to discuss differences as well as common themes of importance, as these would likely affect all school budgets and costs to taxpayers. Much credit goes to the participants and it did come to pass that in the next annual school board elections every budget that was voted on in Essex County was approved. This might have been a first (and only) and, I would add, ‘quite an achievement!’
So let me get back to saying that it was a tough time locally, as they all seem to be, but we got through it by a slim margin by simply putting in the effort to understand the facts of the matter, i.e., where our ‘apples and oranges’ actually stood when compared to those of other districts. We also decided that it would be best to act based on the notion of ‘fairness’ to all. After all, we understood that these things had been discussed by others for many years and that such and such were the numbers that the union wanted and such in such were what other unions in town government had ‘recently’ received and that we just could not move sharply from recent trends in county- and state-wide settlements. But, a big difference was that our committee had done its homework and that we did try to put emphasis on the BIG QUESTION that everyone has asked at one time or another “How can the board (or any governing body) agree to settle on an amount of money that the community cannot afford to pay?”
Part of my preparation was that in previous years I had not only served on our local school board but also held various positions as an officer of the ECSBA, including Vice President for Negotiations. In that position I wanted to get the answer, as to what the facts actually were and what the relationships in settlements, if any, had to do with the very distinctive classifications, i.e., designations by the State of New Jersey of District Factor Groups (DFG’s). These groupings have been assigned to all districts in the state based on the economic health of each and considering the socio-economics and demographics of each, respectively.
At that time, as I recall, Nutley was an F-G or so-called middle-class district out of a range of A (Newark, Paterson, Passaic, Camden, etc.) through J (Millburn, Short Hills, Mountain Lakes, etc.) districts. We in Nutley were also very aware of the outstanding efforts of our teachers and that they worked very hard and served our children and our town extremely well, especially considering that achievement was registering well above the bounds suggested by the ‘limitations’ of DFG rankings. As a board, we tried over the years to recognize and reward Nutley teachers, appropriately. In fact, in the late ‘70’s, when the board felt that teachers in the district were underpaid based on county and state comparisons, we unilaterally decided to give each teacher $1,000.00 to better reward them for their efforts.
What I did through my position in ECSBA, though, was different than had been done previously. One example was that I wrote a letter to and through each BOE to its business administrator and requested copies of whatever recent settlements, salary guides, benefit packages, etc. that they could provide to me. I got great cooperation from the districts and was able to put together what I called the “Negotiations Data Exchange” with tables of comparison for each of the so-called ‘apples, oranges, etc.’, regarding salaries and benefits over the past, in some cases, several years.
I sent a copy of these findings to each local board of education in Essex County which, respectively, responded with appreciation. Further, locally, I was able to explain to the board and publicly how the ‘facts’ showed that we were rewarding our employees well beyond what we could have or, even, should have been expected to pay, as a clearly state-defined ‘middle-class’ district. So when ‘apples’ were compared to ‘apples’, the limited criticism that I took, along with an evening of two or three hundred teachers/district employees and supporters/picketers (mostly friends)- all marching around the Radcliffe elementary school/board meeting, was worth it.
The bottom line that year (late ‘90’s) was that the board achieved a settlement- fair to all- for 0.0, 0.0 and 0.1% for each of the three years, respectively. Harsh (?) some said- not many (they understood), for when looking at the facts, which some BOE and other local elected officials tend to rush through, there is only so much that can be taken out of the pockets of the taxpayers to pay our talented and very much appreciated employees. I refer back to these figures at this time just to show that while they appear ‘scarily low’ to some, the facts are what they are and adjustments do have to be made from time to time.
Also, and I take this as a compliment, I have heard recently that some local school districts are still using some form of this “Negotiations Data Exchange” today and able to make better evaluations/decisions based on what they are currently dealing with, proving again that facts do matter very much and that our local elected bodies may be able in some situations to do better for those who they represent and who are ultimately paying the freight! In this I’m talking about budgets, generally, but one thing to keep in mind is that the school board budget is the only budget that taxpayers get to vote on (YES or NO) in the annual school board election. Included in this budget should be every line item publically discussed and approved by the local board of education.
Related, but as an aside, I am told that the Belleville Board of Education recently spent (wasted, some have said) some $2 million dollars that was not budgeted or approved by the taxpayers on a ‘computer/surveillance system’ that was never truly functional and is now being investigated by the state. To my point, budgeting by our local elected officials is of the utmost importance to taxpayers- the voters who they represent and who deserve the very best in return for this public trust.