ELIZABETH, NJ — Teachers and staff members in the Elizabeth school district are saying that the Elizabeth Board of Education refuses to negotiate contracts, and an agreement for retroactive payments has not been upheld.
According to teachers and staff, who are members of the Elizabeth Education Association which represents more than 4,000 educators and support staff in the district, they have not had a contract since June, 2015.
LocalSource reached out to Spokesperson for Elizabeth Public Schools Pat Politano about the contract situation. Politano did not address the issue as of press time.
In addition, teachers and staff say that retroactive payments negotiated between the EBOE and the EEA, with amounts based upon the pay raise that would have been included in contracts for the 2015-2016 year, were just a fraction of the amount they were supposed to receive, and that payments were sent in two installments, instead of the agreed-upon single payment.
Some employees in the district have not received retroactive payments at all.
Another issue, according to several teachers, centers around EEA President Joe Cortico, who some say has been putting the interests of the BOE before union members and stymieing negotiations.
According to several teachers in the district who spoke with LocalSource, employees in the school district were expecting the agreed-upon retroactive pay in July or August of last year. After payments were not received, employees were then allegedly told checks would be sent out in November or December.
The first retroactive payment was finally received in January, and the second payment was received this month, with amounts allegedly far less than expected.
Politano told LocalSource in a Feb. 22 email that the situation had been resolved.
“The situation is completely resolved,” said Politano. “EEA members received their retro pay. The second check was received last week.”
Politano did not address LocalSource’s inquiry regarding contracts as of press time.
At the Jan. 19 meeting of the BOE, EEA representatives, teachers, staff and advocates came out to speak on behalf of EEA members.
Jon Lippi, EEA vice president, told board members that he had been receiving calls and emails from EEA members, who told him that the retro payments did not match the agreement made between the EEA and BOE, and ratified by both entities.
But Hugelmeyer defended the board at the Jan. 19 meeting, noting a joint statement issued by the EEA and the superintendent, dated December 22, 2016.
“The Elizabeth Public Schools agreed to a 2-percent retroactive increase for members of the EEA for the 2015-2016 year,” read the statement. “In calculating the amount of each person’s check, incorrect salary guides were attached to the Memorandum of Agreement that were based on a modified extended-day schedule. This should never have happened because extended-day had already been eliminated in the district’s budget the previous year.”
The Dec. 22 statement also noted that the EEA had acknowledged that the salary guides were “inappropriately inflated.”
Hugelmeyer told EEA members that although they were getting paid for an extended-day schedule, they were only working a regular day. Her comments were met with anger, with EEA members calling out and booing from the audience.
Board president Stan Neron called for order and began to speak as EEA members stood up abruptly and left the room.
“Leadership and communication and honesty are very important,” Neron said. “I’m calling that when we are in leadership positions, we tell the truth at all times and that we’re transparent with the communication we’re putting forth. To present a scenario or idea that this board would not want to negotiate a contract for our teachers is absurd and extremely disrespectful to this board because we have been fighting, day in and day out, to make sure you have a negotiated contract.”
Hugelmeyer did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment as of press time. In addition, LocalSource reached out to all nine members of the school board, none of whom responded as of press time.
Cortico also spoke forcefully at the Jan. 19 meeting, calling out the board for stating that the data upon which the retroactive payments were initially based on had been inflated, thus accounting for the lower payments received by teachers and staff.
“The data was initially provided to us by the board of education,” Cortico told board members. “We did not inflate anything. The board hired an outside attorney and it was reviewed by several attorneys. I trusted you. I don’t want to be put in that situation when you tell someone something that’s been transmitted to you, and then it’s been changed. It’s ugly. The retroactive payments reflect not a single agreement that was made between our own two parties.”
But many teachers in the district are stating that Cortico is just as culpable as the board.
“There is real fear of retaliation if you take action against this regime,” the teacher told LocalSource in a phone call last week. “Cortico just dances around the issue. This is his way of gaining popularity amongst his peers. He lured people in and felt he had the respect of the community.”
Cortico did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment as of press time.
Christina Cunha-Moreira, a parent-advocate in the district, addressed the board as well.
“Do the right thing and pay them what they work so hard for,” Cunha-Moreira said. “And while you’re at it, settle a contract. They have waited long enough.”
Patricia Gallante, a retired special education teacher in the district, also spoke up at the meeting, calling out Elizabeth Superintendent of Schools, Olga Hugelmeyer, for not following through with her promise to meet with teachers to address the issues.
“Teachers did make appointments with the superintendent, and needless to say, when people arrived for meetings, they were sent over to a payroll supervisor, an unknown person who they didn’t know, that read a statement out loud to them,” Gallante said. “You led the teachers to believe that you would meet with them and then made no attempts to make good on those promises. It seems that failed promises are a trend around here.”
Lippi said that negotiations have come to a halt.
“I got calls from cafeteria staff — some of the lowest paid workers in the district — whom the district issued no retro checks at all to,” Lippi said at the meeting. “All negotiations with district leadership has come to a halt. We should be working on a new contract by now. As you can see, we’re fed up.”
Lippi did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment as of press time.
According to the teacher, some people feel a loyalty to Cortico, while others have gone to both the county and state to complain about him.
Another teacher, who also requested anonymity, said that there has been a lack of transparency on the part of Cortico.
“I feel like there is a lack of transparency that we are receiving from our union,” she told LocalSource in a phone call last week. “We honestly don’t get much information. We don’t even know if there are real negotiations taking place. We get no real details. There has been no transparency about the retro pay. The deal that we were presented was not even what we agreed on or what we voted on.”
“It was definitely an extreme blow,” she said. “It insulted our intelligence.”
Cortico, said the teacher, is a real problem for EEA members.
“We have very little trust in our union. We pay almost $1,000 a year in union fees.”
The teacher said that she, along with many others, are disturbed by what she sees as a lack of empathy.
“It’s insulting,” she said. “Many of us are taking on second jobs. People were crying when they got those retro checks. It’s so disheartening. What’s fair is fair, and what’s right is right, and that’s all we’re asking.”
Another long-time teacher in the district who requested anonymity told LocalSource that her confidence in both the board and the union is diminishing.
“Every time something changes or we’re lied to, our confidence in the board and the union is diminished,” she said in a phone call last week. “When they switched over from one group of horrible people running the board, they changed to another group of horrible people. It’s a very political town. The union is supposed to be looking out for our interests. Now we are starting to stand up for ourselves. We just kind of took it. We feel like we’re being lied to and betrayed.”