Hillside teachers press for new contract, pay hike

Photos by Rebecca Panico
Faculty members and parents rallied April 19 outside of the Hillside Board of Education for a contract. Faculty in the district have been working without a contract since July.

HILLSIDE, NJ — Kelly Ronca, a second-grade teacher, doesn’t want to leave the school district over contract negotiations, but she also doesn’t want to work three other jobs to pay her mortgage and other bills.

“I don’t want to leave Hillside,” Ronca said at an April 19 meeting. “I love the families. I love my students. I feel like I’ve had so many — multiple children of yours — that I’ve become part of the Hillside family. So I certainly don’t want to leave this district, but I also don’t want to work four jobs because I’m so tired.”

Ronca, who lives on her own and has been working in the district for 14 years, was one of dozens of teachers who implored the nine-member school board to start negotiations with the Hillside Education Association for a contract. Teachers have been working without a contract since July.

At issue are the rising costs of healthcare premiums and a lack of contract negotiations since last year with school officials. A three-year pay freeze that began around 2010 also had a domino-effect on teachers’ salaries.

The HEA represents 375 teachers, security officers, custodians and secretaries in the district. The union is calling for salary increases and a reduction in employee contributions to health insurance.

The union staged rallies before and after school since about April 16, and rallied again in front of the local board of education before its April 19 meeting.

Teachers and parents were not deterred from remaining for the entire meeting that lasted until about 10:30 p.m. to speak during the public comments portion. The school board did not address the contract issue during the meeting though.

Superintendent Antoine Gayles told LocalSource school officials planned to “propose some dates” on either April 23 or 24 to begin negotiations.
“Please be advised that the HEA and board have agreed to not publicly discuss negotiations at this time,” Gayles said in an April 24 email to LocalSource. “I can say that we are working diligently to reach a settlement.”

School board President Hawaiian Thompson-Epps referred all questions regarding contract negotiation to Gayles.
HEA President Angela Lawler said district officials told her they were waiting for more stability in the school board, which has five new members this year. Last year, two former school board members ran for township council, while the former school board president ran for mayor.

Teachers are calling for “relief” from “Chapter 78”, a 2011 state law that required faculty to pay larger portions of health care premiums that would rise over a four-year period.

The median annual salary of a teacher in Hillside was $60,688 for 2015-2016, the latest year data was available from the state Department of Education.

One teacher’s rally sign showed that in 2006, she grossed a $40,000 annual salary and brought home about about $29,000, or 73 percent, after health premium payments. After earning a master’s degree she now has a gross annual salary of $63,318, but only takes home $37,000, or about 58 percent, due to rising premiums.

Meanwhile, the pay freeze teachers experienced was related to the 2010 tax levy cap law. The amount a municipality or school board could increase taxes was limited to 2 percent, with some exceptions.

No strike has been planned for the district yet, said Lawler, the HEA president.
“That’s not something that we do lightly,” Lawler said at the rally before the April 19 school board meeting.