New Jersey Governor, Legislature Debating Pay Bill

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A bill that would raise the minimum salary for New Jersey's teachers has stalled between legislative chambers, while Gov. Thomas H. Kean and legislators attempt to work out differences over financing the increase and fashioning a way to recognize and reward outstanding teachers.

Governor Kean has proposed establishing a minimum salary of $18,500 for all the state's teachers, a 33-percent increase over the current average minimum. But according to his education adviser, Richard P. Mills, the Governor insists that "any increase in the minimum salary for teachers be linked to some form of teacher recognition."

Senator Matthew Feldman, who is involved in the negotiations over the bill, last week commended the Governor for his effort to increase teachers' salaries and said that legislators would have "no problems with a teacher-recognition plan."

Who Will Pay

Who will pay for the new minimum salaries, the participants agree, is the major item to be settled. The first-year cost is estimated at $37.8 million, according to Mr. Mills.

"The question is, how long should full state funding last?" Mr. Mills said. "There are some tough issues that still need to be ironed out."

Early this year, when the Assembly passed a bill that would raise the starting salary for teachers to $18,500, the Governor found several aspects of the measure unacceptable.

The current negotiations are focused on rewriting this bill before it is introduced in the Senate.

The House measure would obligate the state to finance the difference between the new minimum salary and the 1983-84 beginning salary, and it contains an "escalator clause" that could push the minimum salary up each year based on the state's cost-of-living index. The bill contains no provision for a teacher-recognition program.

According to Senator Feldman, the Governor has proposed that the state initially pick up the costs incurred by raising the minimum salary, then gradually pass them on to the local districts on a five-year schedule.

State Should Pay

But many lawmakers want a long-range commitment from the state. "We don't want this increased cost put on the backs of the local school districts," Senator Feldman said. "We just don't want the burden of this to be on the property-tax payer when the state is enjoying prosperity."

The Senator said the state is expected to start the next fiscal year with a surplus of more than $700 million. Mr. Mills agreed that New Jersey's recent prosperity would enable it to finance the teacher-pay hike initially without raising taxes. "But this can't be expected to endure forever," he said.

'The Ripple Effect'

Irrespective of the financing details, the New Jersey School Boards Association opposes the measure because it does not address "the ripple effect" that raising the minimum salary would have on the upward end of teacher pay scales, said a spokesman, Frank Belluscio.

"Pressure will be applied at the bargaining table to provide proportionate raises for the rest of the teaching force," Mr. Belluscio said. Statewide, such raises would cost about $318 million, he said, and there has been no mention of state funds to cover the cost.

"We recognize the need to to address the issue of starting salaries," Mr. Belluscio said, "but we don't believe these proposals are the solution."

Recognition Proposal

Lawmakers and administration officials have not yet agreed on a program to identify and reward distinguished teachers. One proposal that is receiving serious consideration, Mr. Mills said, would allow districts to designate up to 5 percent of their teachers to receive $500 bonuses. The plan would cost about $2.2 million, he noted.

Last year, the Governor's master-teacher pilot project, which would have paid outstanding teachers in five selected districts increments of up to $5,000 for the equivalent of 20 days of extra work, met with such strong opposition from the New Jersey Education Association that only two districts agreed to participate this year.

"We're opposed to anything that smacks of master-teacher or merit pay," said Donald S. Rosser, spokesman for the njea, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

"We believe the salary scales from top to bottom have to be raised significantly," Mr. Rosser said. "The other plans only appear to raise teacher pay. They raise pay for a few rather than the whole body of the teaching profession."

Mr. Rosser noted that the njea is not opposed to teacher recognition. "We'll work with the Governor to try to reach a mutually agreeable program," he said.

While union leaders are not directly involved in the current negotiations over the minimum-salary bill, state officials have met with representatives of the njea to discuss the issues, Mr. Mills said.

Vol. 04, Issue 36

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