By ERIN ROLL
A hundred teachers and district staffers packed the Board of Education meeting Monday night, April 15, demanding a fair contract.
The teachers have been working without a contract for 288 days as of April 15, Montclair Education Association (MEA) Chair Petal Robertson and Vice Chair Tom Manos told the packed room.
Issues for the union include lower teacher salaries, the length of maternity leave and diminishing health benefits.
“None of us got into this profession expecting riches,” Manos said.
The contract between the MEA and the district is for a term of three years. The last contract was from 2015 to 2018.
The MEA has declared an impasse for the third time, and has now asked for mediation, he said.
District officials however disputed that the teachers are working without a contract, but rather they are working under the terms of the existing one while a new one is negotiated.
After the meeting, Superintendent Kendra Johnson said the administration and MEA are “engaging in good faith negotiations.
“In terms of the [collective bargaining agreement], the contract actually remains in place until a new agreement is reached. It is our intent to amicably resolve this matter,” she said.
Morale is low among teachers who are working with declines in benefits, including family leave time, and take-home pay over the past decade, said Manos.
During the 2017-2018 school year, teachers filed 16 grievances, when the average school year only sees one or two, according to Robertson. Some classes have been going without qualified substitutes, in the absence of regular teachers, Robertson said.
“This is not the district many of us remember when we were hired,” Manos said, as a large “No” went up from all the teachers in the audience.
The teaching staff who came to the microphone to speak laid out a series of concerns and stresses they had been experiencing in their work at the schools.
“I came to a family that cared about my life, inside and outside the school,” said Annette Kuehn, a special education teacher at Montclair High School.
She said she has to take a lot of extra steps to help some of her more vulnerable students, like buying food so that they will have breakfast to eat at school, when they arrive too late and the only food available in the cafeteria is muffins.
“I come to work for my students and my co-workers, and I give a damn. Perhaps you should too,” she told the board.
The subject of family leave was a particularly sensitive subject for many of the teachers in the audience.
The Montclair school district provides up to 12 weeks of family leave, in compliance with the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act and the New Jersey Family and Medical Leave Act.
In the past teachers said, Montclair would allow its staff to take up to a year of leave following the birth of a child. The staff appealed to Montclair to return to the extended family leave model.
Abigail Ernst, a first-grade teacher at Watchung, became visibly emotional as she recalled how she was permitted a year off to be with her child, and she wants subsequent new parents among the district staff to have the same opportunity.
Drury Throp, also a Watchung staff member, said that Montclair offered significantly less family leave than some of its neighboring districts. “It’s time for Montclair to step up for families, and be the leader it claims to be.”
James Harris, of the Montclair NAACP, urged the school administration and the MEA to come to an agreement.
“If the school system is an excellent system, it’s because of what’s happening in the classroom,” he said. “Please resolve this as quickly as possible so morale will not diminish.”
The crowd at the meeting spilled out of the door, with at least 50 people standing outside at the start of the meeting, and were gradually able to move inside.
“Tonight, we gathered to be heard,” Robertson said.