UNION COUNTY, NJ — Although students held several demonstrations and even stepped to the microphone Monday night at a school board meeting to make an impassioned plea, 44 non-tenured teachers contracts will not be renewed, and the Union County Vo-Tech board made it clear “this is business, not personal.”
Last week, 44 of the non-tenured teachers were given pink slips, or non-renewal notices, which spurred students to protest on their behalf. On May 1 about 90 percent of students wore red T-shirts in support of their teachers and staged a sit-in before classes started.
Superintendent of Schools Peter Capodice explained at the meeting that the decision to not rehire the non-tenured teachers had to do with business and the state of the school district’s finances.
“This is not something that was done with any malice,” the superintendent told more than 150 students, parents and teachers attending the meeting, adding the decision was based purely on budget constraints and no surplus funds to fall back on.
Last week, Capodice, who was appointed superintendent in 2013, sent a letter to board of education members explaining
an audit of last year’s finances uncovered that the district had no surplus funds to fall back on as they did in previous years. This, he said in the letter, led to a deficit in the 2015-16 budget.
The superintendent said surplus was important because it was these funds that typically pay the tab for non-tenured staff. Without surplus, Capodice said he had no other choice but to not rehire the non-tenured teachers.
“Last year we had $455,969 in budgeted fund balance and this year we have none,” said the superintendent in the letter dated April 24. The superintendent also noted that no increase in state aid added to the burden of not overspending salary lines.
The fact that the teachers union has been without a contract for a year also weighed heavily in the decision making, Capodice told school board members in his letter.
“Should a settlement be forced upon us that is higher than we had originally budgeted for, we will find ourselves in a deeper deficit leaving us no options other than layoffs and program cuts,” said Capodice.
The superintendent also felt that renewing the 44 non-tenured teachers also could “potentially cause over staffing and a 60-day salary liability on our part should their services no longer be required.”
If there was any light at the end of the tunnel for the 44 teachers, it was that some may be rehired later this month or next, depending on the financial status of the district.
“I fully expect to begin hiring back non-tenured staff based on need at the scheduled meetings in May and June,” said the schools superintendent in the letter, adding that it was a difficult situation to face.
“This is not an easy or pleasant decision for the board or me but I believe it to be a safe option considering our financial state and would appreciate your support,” Capodice said in the letter, adding he would have a better handle on things once the district’s master schedule is complete.
At that time, he explained, the school district would be in a better position to reallocate staff, increase class size or determine a way to meet salary obligations. Capodice also noted that teachers have been evaluated and recommendations were made by principals regarding what non-tenured teachers should be brought back.
Monday night, after hearing from approximately 32 speakers, including students, teachers, parents and alumni, the school board voted to renew the contracts of tenured teachers, a supervisor eligible for tenure and non-tenured administrative employees and support staff. There was no call to rehire the 44 teachers, which make up 30 percent of the teaching staff.
For students, who wore red in support of their teachers at Monday night’s meeting, it was one last opportunity to plead their case for rehiring their teachers. In many cases, these pleas were emotional and often interrupted by tears as students tried to explain how important these educators were to them.
Evan Pasternak, a senior who will be attending Yale University in the fall, was one of the students who stepped to the microphone to try and sway the school board.
“The Union County Vo-Tech teachers and staff are amazing human beings who have a deep concern for each and every one of us and a desire to see us soar to amazing heights,” said the Scotch Plains resident who is finishing his senior year at the Academy for Information Technology.
Pasternak explained he was an excellent example of the role these particular teachers play in student’s lives because they were there last fall as he recovered from major surgery.
Board member Jean Perkins tried to assure those present that they appreciated their comments, but said the decision was not based on emotions and could not be changed by these impassioned pleas.
“That’s not how it goes and I know you know that,” Perkins said to the audience, but added “we are listening and the emotion is good and right and proper.”
When Springfield resident Risa Yesowitz went to the podium, she questioned the reasoning behind the board making a decision to not rehire the non-tenured teachers when contract negotiations are heading to mediation.
“To our children and your students this is not a cute high school demonstration nor should it be chalked up to a civics lesson,” said the Springfield resident, adding “these students are embarrassed as are their parents.”
Teachers also gave their opinion on what was taking place, many noting that the failure to renew the non-tenured teachers would damage the morale of those on staff.
“That will change the environment on campus,” said Jennifer Puglia, a biology teacher, adding that the reputation of the schools would be damaged, urging the board to consider other alternatives.
On April 30, students from the Vo-Tech schools attended the Union County Freeholder meeting to plead for help from the board, but Freeholder Al Mirabella had problems with anyone saying the board was not invested in the district.
He explained the county has invested more than $100 million in improvements to the Vo-Tech school district over the last 10 to 15 years.
“I know this administration supports teachers and I take exception to any student saying we don’t,” said Mirabella, adding that during contract negotiations “misinformation comes out.”
“I’m not sure you know this but the county does not negotiate with teachers,” he told students, adding that he was “particularly frustrated that our students are being used as a leveraging point.”
“I think that’s wrong,” Mirabella said, but stressed that he appreciated students’ passion but they should be “putting this energy towards their homework and education.”
“Teachers should negotiate over the bargaining table, not involve students across the table,” said Mirabella, adding “students should not be advocating for teachers.”
Freeholder Chairman Mohamed Jalloh thanked students for coming to the meeting, remarking that “you are showing us what the future looks like.”
The Union County Vocational Technical Schools are a grouping of schools, divided into different academies in Scotch Plains. Students throughout the county can attend any of the five schools, one of which is a magnet school.
As of the 2012-13 school year, the district’s five schools had an enrollment of 1,316 students and approximately 122 teachers, for a student to teacher ratio of 10.7 to 1.
The question of how the county is involved with the school district that bears its name is complex. While the freeholder board does not have any jurisdiction over day-to-day operations of the Vo-Tech schools or its contractual negotiations, they do monitor the situation and send two liaisons to school board meetings.
“One of our highest priorities is to maintain this gold standard of education that is being provided to our students,” said Union County Director of Public Information Sebastian D’Elia, pointing out the county annually funds 20 percent of the overall Vo-Tech budget which is between $5 to $6 million.
“Our financial commitment has not decreased. In fact, it increases virtually every year,” D’Elia added.
In addition to this annual funding over the past decade, the freeholder board has voted to provide well over $125 million in capital financing that has resulted in the construction of several new schools, improvements and an expansion of educational services, that has made Union County Vocational Technical Schools one of the top-performing school districts nationwide, according to D’Elia.
“That is not all talk. All five Vo-Tech schools ranked high in the U.S. News and World Report in a 2014 survey which compared more than 31,200 public high schools nationwide,” he said.
D’Elia also noted that it is not uncommon during contract negotiations for school boards to decide not to renew non-tenured teachers and employees.
“It is a practice throughout the nation and in fact quite a few districts in the state take that course of action annually,” said the public information director, pointing out that “it does not mean the teachers will not be rehired.”
D’Elia was aware that the school district placed an ad seeking teachers at the Vo-Tech schools, and wished to clear up any misunderstandings.
“We have been advised by the superintendent that the ad was placed early to guarantee having qualified applicants available to hire for the next year if a shortage occurs,” he explained. The public information director also noted that claims that Vo-Tech teacher salaries are “almost the lowest in the county” were not correct.
“The starting salaries are actually the fifth-highest in the county among all school districts, but many teachers are newer in terms of their service, which reflects the expansion that has occurred,” D’Elia added.