Despite numerous meetings and a formal hearing in December, an agreement has yet to be reached between Red Bank Regional's Board of Education and its teachers on a new contract, after a previous agreement expired 18 months ago.
Since that time, the two sides have moved through various forms of negotiations in an attempt to iron out an agreement that have included mediation with a third party and now working with a "fact finder."
The board and the RBR education association met with the fact finder for a formal hearing on Dec. 20 to present their positions, according to Superintendent Jim Stefankiewicz, but were unable to reach an agreement. Each side now has 30 days to rebut the opposition's presentation and then the fact finder has an additional 30 days to deliver a non-binding report with recommendations for settlement.
Both the board and the education association's negotiating team could still meet prior to the release of that report to try to reach an agreement on their own, said Stefankiewicz. If no settlement is agreed upon following the fact finder's report, both sides would then move into super conciliation, with more negotiating, recommendations and ultimately, time until a new agreement is ratified for the approximately 150 teachers and office personnel employed by the board and represented by the association.
"We have been working since July 2011 without a contract," said Katie Blackwell, vice president of the RBREA, "yet we have gone above and beyond our professional duties in the light of the events of this school year.
"Teachers have cooked meals and raised money to defray costs for families who have suffered loss this year, donated time to clothing drives, participated in post-Sandy clean-ups, organized t-shirts sales to raise money for Sandy victims, as well as for the Albert Martin Memorial Fund," Blackwell said. "These charitable efforts still continue behind the scenes."
While negotiations are under way, the terms and conditions of the expired agreement remain in effect, including salary and health benefits.
Stefankiewicz said he was hopeful about reaching an agreement and getting teachers "the increase they've worked so hard for, while mindful of the current fiscal situation."
The big issues, Stefankiewicz said, are salary and benefits. Association members' salaries and health benefits cost the board approximately $11.5 million in the 2010-2011 school year, according to a release by the board last month. Overall salary and health benefits for all board employees represent approximately 70 percent of the board's budget.
The board needs to keep any increases beneath the state-mandated 2 percent tax levy cap.
Blackwell pointed out that it's been the efforts of the staff that have resulted in RBR's designation by New Jersey Monthly magazine as one of the top high schools in the state and ranking in Newsweek's top 2 percent of schools in the country.
Regardless of a settlement, the superintendent said staff members have remained "consummate professionals."
"But that comes as no surprise to me," Stefankiewicz added.
According to Blackwell, despite the lack of contract, "The members of the RBREA are 'Still working and Still Caring'."