It’s become something of a routine by now. At every recent Gloucester Township school board meeting, a contingent of red-shirted teachers shows up. Usually someone talks about the stalled teacher contract negotiations, sometimes not.
But in truth, the board of education and the Gloucester Township Education Association (GTEA) teachers union are treading on unfamiliar ground. The two sides agree on very little, except this: No one can remember the last time negotiations took this long or progressed to this point.
“We have never been to this stage,” GTEA President Angel McDermott said at the Jan. 28 board meeting. “In my 16 years as president (and) my six years as negotiations chair before that, we have never reached this stage. This is new to all of us.”
The 600-plus teachers in the K-8 district’s 11 schools have worked without a formal contract . Negotiations are so stalled and mediation so mired that the school board and GTEA decided to proceed with fact-finding, a formal process where a mutually agreed upon fact-finder holds hearings and makes recommendations on a settlement.
But even that decision is caught up in disagreements. The school board says GTEA cancelled a planned Jan. 7 fact-finding meeting; GTEA says the school board didn’t allot enough time for a fact-finding meeting on Jan. 7 and it was prepared to meet more informally instead. With the meeting called off, the next available date is in late March.
And that’s just a very minor disagreement on a list of issues creating an impasse on the teacher contracts. As the school board and GTEA slog to find common ground, students have or will start to see the effects of the protracted negotiations as teachers begin job actions.
Teachers could begin upholding the letter of their employment agreement and refuse any extra work not required. That may mean no extended afterschool hours or no extra work to plan activities and trips.
The school board denied on Monday knowing whether job actions will occur, but a board member spoke out against it. While saying she has the utmost respect for Gloucester Township teachers, Linda Gilch said job actions only harm students.
“You’re not hurting us, you’re not hurting the board, you’re not hurting administrators by doing any type of job action—you’re hurting the children,” she said. “I understand you want a contract and I understand we need to come to a consensus. But you’re not taking anything away from us.”
A parent and teacher in another district, Debra Hines, countered that the board expects “250 percent” from its educators, who don’t like the job actions either.
“It’s crushing them to be lowered down to the level to treat (students) as minimally as possible,” she said. “If they start to give what they’re contractually supposed to give, and they pull back, it’s breaking their heart inside. They would prefer to have a contract and be treated with dignity and the respect they deserve for educating children.”
A ray of hope?
The impasse between the board and teachers shows little sign of cracking. Both sides stood resolute in laying the blame at the other’s feet, although they may meet again before the March fact-finding session.
“We would be willing to meet again to try to discuss it. But meeting also entails the parties compromising on some situations, and part of the difficulty we have is we haven’t been able to bridge that gap,” John Wade, school board solicitor, said.
“Unfortunately, we’re in a situation where we have 2-percent cap, we have restrictions on us now the likes of which we’ve never had before. So, we came to the table and said we have certain restrictions and we need to operate within those restrictions. You folks didn’t take that position.”
The school board didn’t approach its 2-percent cap in budget talks, McDermott retorted.
“Do you want to settle the contract for 2 percent?” Wade shot back. “I’m a little frustrated because we’re hearing this now. The reality is you’re not willing to settle for 2 percent. You’ve told us that.”
McDermott later said GTEA and the school board are “approximately 2 percent” apart on their demands for the contract. She also acknowledged there are unspecified school-board positions that the GTEA will not agree to.
“Yes, compromises need to be made, but we have to see where that will lie,” she said.
The next Gloucester Township Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. at Lewis Middle School. If recent history is any indication, the room will once again be filled with teachers wearing their signature red GTEA polo shirts.