RAMSEY, N.J. – In February, Ramsey (New Jersey) school board members did something so outrageous, so beyond the bounds of decency and sacred tradition that the local teachers’ union president says it has poisoned relations between the district and union "for decades to come."
What was the school board members’ unforgivable offense? They gave taxpayers details of the board’s contract offer to the teachers union.
Specifically, eight of Ramsey’s nine school board members used their own money to place a full-page ad in a local newspaper on Feb. 2. One board member refused to join in, warning that it could lead to "hostility" throughout the district.
The ad described the particulars of the board’s three-year contract offer which had been rejected by the Ramsey Teachers Association, and revealed what the union was demanding in return.
Eight months after contract talks had been declared to be at an impasse, the Ramsey community learned the RTA had rejected a three-year contract that would have given union members average annual raises of nearly three percent, in exchange for switching to the state’s health insurance plan.
Union officials were holding out for an average pay raise of 4.6 percent over three years.
"We value tremendously our wonderful teaching staff. But we just don’t have enough ongoing revenue to sustain the RTA leadership’s salary demands," the eight members wrote in the ad, citing New Jersey’s cuts in K-12 aid and the new tax levy cap of two percent.
"The only answer to the funding problem – if we want to avoid layoffs, larger class sizes, and deterioration of our facilities and educational programs – is to control personnel costs," wrote the board members.
The ad clearly angered union leaders.
"This action has eliminated any chance of good faith negotiations, any last iota of trust, and has not only killed the process now, but, realistically, for decades to come," RTA President Richard Romains wrote in an email, according to NorthJersey.com.
Romains says public knowledge of contract talks violates "decades of normal and accepted practice concerning confidentiality in negotiations." According to Romains, informing the public about what each side wants in a contract amounts to "bullying tactics."
But such transparency is nothing new in Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Colorado’s Douglas County School District, where taxpayers are allowed to actually witness union contact negotiations, or at least know the terms before the contracts are finalized.
That’s the way it should be everywhere. Taxpayers fund public schools and have a right to know where their money is going before it’s spent. Suggesting they should be left in the dark is the same as saying it’s none of their business. If the unions feel that way, perhaps they should fund public schools themselves.
Lack of transparency allows unions to frame the debate
The Ramsey school board kept details of the contract talks confidential during the first 13 months of negotiations, even though it was not obligated to do so.
But Ramsey board member Richard Muti told EAG that after mediation efforts failed to produce an agreement, the board decided that taxpayers deserved to know why.
"While talks were ongoing, we told the union we wouldn’t make any public comments except to correct misperceptions," Muti said, noting that he speaks only for himself and not the board as a whole.
But without public transparency, teacher unions hold nearly all the cards during contract negotiations.
"New Jersey is a very union-friendly state, and there is no mechanism in place to require a contract settlement," Muti said. "Teachers can hold out as long as they want. Since they usually receive retroactive pay raises, it leads to teachers stonewalling the process."
That approach served the Ramsey union well during its contract negotiations with previous school boards. RTA’s last contract provided members with a 16.95 percent cumulative pay raise over four years, with no health insurance concessions.
"(The previous board) could not say what they had offered, so the teachers were able to form the debate," Muti told NorthJersey.com.
Fortunately in Ramsey, residents now have an idea of what’s going on. Ninety percent of the district’s revenue comes from property taxes, so taxpayers will certainly benefit from the increased transparency.
But Muti has emerged as the RTA’s arch nemesis, and is up for re-election during next week’s school board election. The results should indicate whether public support for transparency is stronger than the union’s commitment to secrecy and political retribution.