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Published in Print: May 4, 2005, as Once Bitterly Divided, N.J. District Achieves Accord

Once Bitterly Divided, N.J. District Achieves Accord

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It was an ending to teachers’ contract talks that only cockeyed optimists in Middletown, N.J., would have been likely to predict a year ago: praise for both sides, hugs all around, and an agreement ratified more than two months before the current one expires.

Not in more than 30 years have the Middletown Township district and its teachers’ union come to terms before a contract was up. Moreover, strikes preceded both of the last two contracts—the second one, in 2001, landing 228 Middletown teachers in jail for as long as three days.

But now, observers say, that bitter legacy has waned.

“It was amazing,” exulted activist and parent Marianne C. Kligman about the agreement and the good feelings swirling around it. “The rancorous past of the last 10 years is behind us.”

The three-year contract approved last month calls for average teacher-salary increases of 4.7 percent, 4.5 percent, and 4.3 percent. It also changes some aspects of the health-insurance plan, generating savings for the district while keeping teachers’ costs the same, according to district officials.

Joan Minnuies, the president of the school board, said the first- and second-year raises match the state average for those districts that have so far concluded negotiations this school year.

The increases require about a $150 annual property-tax increase on the average assessed home in the 10,500-student district, according to Ms. Kligman, a member of a committee formed about eight years ago to campaign for passage of school budgets at the polls.

Voters in the township approved a $102 million levy on April 19 as part of a $125 million school budget that is expected to pay for the raises next school year.

Salaries and health-care costs had been the sticking points through the last two seasons of contract negotiations. ("Bad Blood," Sept. 29, 2004.)

The agreement also allows the relatively high-achieving district to devise new academic schedules related to students’ learning needs, such as 50 percent more math instruction in middle school and a possible additional period in the high school day.

Negotiating Differently

At an April 14 meeting that packed Middletown High School North’s cafeteria with first attentive and then jubilant parents and teachers, the school board voted 8-1 to accept the contract. Board member Thomas J. Conroy cast the only no vote.

The following week he was defeated in elections for the school board and budget.

Mr. Conroy said he was concerned about the cost of the deal, given tighter budget controls the state has imposed, which will be fully phased in during the 2006-07 school year. “I did not want to see 30-plus children in a class and/or programs cut or dismantled entirely,” Mr. Conroy said last week. “The agreement does not begin to address what is going to happen.”

The district’s ability to pay for the salary increases was helped by the coming early retirement of 50 of the district’s 900 teachers, who were drawn by an incentive plan, said Superintendent David L. Witmer.

The union also ratified the settlement on April 14.

At the meeting that evening, according to reports, Diane L. Swain, the longtime president of the Middletown Township Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, hailed changes in the process that led to the settlement. She could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Minnuies said that after several slow-going months of talks, the board and the union agreed to a streamlined arrangement. From that point on, just two board members and two union leaders sat down together.

The board president said the respectful tone of the negotiations was supported by work throughout the district involving teachers, parents, and administrators in discussions about school improvement.

“A year of healing showed everybody it was so much better to get along,” Ms. Kligman agreed. “I think the community was so devastated by [the last strike], they would never want to revisit it.”

Vol. 24, Issue 34, Page 3

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