The Hopatcong is withholding the 1.95 percent raises due members of the Hopatcong Education Association over an impasse about health care contribution language in the new contract.
The raises were scheduled to take effect with the opening of the new school year.
In response, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge against the board with the New Jersey Public Employees Relations Commission.
A contract agreement was reached on Jan. 20 and was signed by both parties that day, said John Ropars, union representative for the Hopatcong teachers. The 3-year contract was ratified by the union in March.
The new impasse was announced Tuesday in an email message sent by Superintendent Charles Maranzano to teachers.
“As of this date the Hopatcong Borough School Board and the HEA negotiations team(s) have not been able to reconcile a dispute in the final draft of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). As a result of this negotiations impasse concerning the final language of the CBA, the Board has asked PERC to reassign the state mediator," Maranzano wrote.
“Dates are being discussed and it is the Board’s goal to resolve this impasse with our teachers as soon as possible. However, during the period and until the new contract is finalized, the pending 1.95 percent pay adjustments have been suspended for members of the teachers unit. Once the issues are resolved, all of our teachers will receive all salary due to them,” he said.
But, Ropars said, there is no dispute about the contract language.
“There is no dispute because there was no discussion about the language,” Ropars said.
This issue arose because, as is standard practice after a new contract agreement is reached, the old contract and the new contract are reconciled and any errors corrected.
In this case, Ropars said, the school board is calling the health benefits language an error, and the union disagrees.
The state law–Chapter 78-2011, signed by Gov. Chris Christie last year–that changed public employees contributions to their pension and health care benefit programs, set minimum standards for those contribution, Ropers said.
“These contributions levels were not negotiable,” he said. “This was an illegal topic of negotiations.”
Further, he said, the contract contains language that says if any article in the contract is superseded by state law, the parties must conform to state law. In other words, since the new state law created the minimum health care contribution standards, language in the contract restating those standards is not necessary, he said.
Maranzano agreed that the language in Chapter 78 superseded any language in the new contract. The new state law means that health care benefit contributions, which previously had been an item subject to negotiations, were now set by the state.
But, he said, the board felt it could not sign off on the new contract until all unresolved issues were settled.
“We don’t have a legal contract until all differences are resolved,” he said. “We have an issue of semantics.”
The school board’s attorney offered language to resolve the differences between the old contract and the new one, but that the union did not support the language and the impasse was created, Maranzano said.
He said meetings to resolve the dispute could be held within the next two weeks. The school board is trying to show that it is fiscally responsible and is listening to the voters' concerns. Once the issue is resolved, all back pay will paid to teachers, he said.
"We don’t want to create a morale issue at the beginning of the school year,” he said.
Ropars said this action is not a statement of opposition to the employee contributions, just to the board’s actions to withhold agreed-upon raises.
He noted, however, that according to the contribution schedule in the law, those teachers at the higher end of the pay scale over the life of the contract would see a possible decrease in take-home pay because the level of health care contribution exceed the value of a 1.95 percent annual pay hike.