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Fort Lee Teachers Contract to Expire at End of April, Raising Concerns

School officials say they have not begun to negotiate a new contract with the Fort Lee Education Association, but that they have reached out and hope to be able to avoid retirements in the middle of the school year.

The Fort Lee Public School District’s current contract with its teachers is set to expire on April 30, and that has some people concerned about potential retirements before the school year ends. But school officials say they are hopeful they can work out an agreement with the Fort Lee Education Association (FLEA) to avoid that.

The issue came up at the Fort Lee Board of Education’s regular business meeting Monday, when one member of the public expressed concern that with the contract ending in just five months, as many as 30 teachers may retire before school gets out at the end of June.

Business administrator Cheryl Balletto couldn’t confirm that many potential retirements, but she did tell Patch that with six school buildings, 30 is “not really an unreasonable number.”

She also said that by Jan. 31 of every school year when she prepares the budget, anyone who is eligible and might retire that year must submit a “letter of intent to retire,” enabling her to budget for accrued sick pay, which can run the district $40,000 to $60,000 per person for those who were hired before 1996.

She said the letter of intent to retire doesn’t mean those people are definitely going to retire, but that anyone who submitted the letter this year is budgeted for. Not submitting the letter doesn’t mean a person can’t retire either; they just have to wait another year for their payout.

At the meeting Monday, board president Yusang Park said the board is not currently in talks with the union, but that officials have reached out to FLEA leadership “to begin our preliminary negotiation talks.”

“Technically, we should have been looking into this and should have been in talks with the union earlier, in my own personal opinion,” Park said. “But I think that is just one of the many things that we need to look into as a board during our goal-setting session.”

The BOE’s special goal-setting public meeting, which was originally scheduled for Nov. 5, had to be postponed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and has not yet been rescheduled.

Interim superintendent Sharon Amato, who called the contract situation “a very serious issue, obviously of great concern,” said she has met with FLEA officials, who indeed expressed concerns about accrued sick pay.

“Their concern is that if the terms of that sick leave payout changes when they renegotiate the contract, because the contract is expiring April 30, many of the union members fear that they will have to give up some of their sick pay,” Amato said.

Board attorney Yaacov Brisman said Monday he couldn’t disclose “negotiation strategies” in a public forum, but that sick pay would certainly be “an issue that’s going to have to be dealt with” during the course of negotiations with the union.

Brisman also said the potential mid-school-year retirements would be part of the negotiation process, which he noted will be handled for the school district by board attorney Matthew Giacobbe.

“Certainly that’s an issue that’s going to have to be resolved,” Brisman said.

Balletto told Patch that in order to understand why the contract ends on April 30, as opposed to the end of the school year, you have to go back three years, when she was working on the school budget and advised by the school district’s broker at the time to budget roughly 25 percent for health benefits.

“Then the actual amount came in, and it was 45 percent,” Balletto said. “We’re a district of over 400 employees, so obviously that means millions of dollars that was not budgeted.”

At the time, the school district was using Horizon, which had a “traditional plan” and a “direct access plan,” according to Balletto. She said that wanting to “save people’s jobs,” school officials approached FLEA and asked if the union would be willing to negotiate an agreement to switch to the New Jersey state health benefits plan, which would save roughly $2 million and help close the budget gap.

“And through a negotiation process, it was agreed to do that,” Balletto said. “However that was done during a budget cycle, and you’re only allowed, by law, to have a three-year union contract.”

The contract was therefore approved in April 2010, according to Balletto, which means that by law it could only run through April 30, 2013.

“If we could have done it as a June 30 cutoff, of course we would have,” she said at Monday’s meeting. “But unfortunately, the law is very specific on the timeframe that you can have a union contract in a public school.”

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Baba O'Riley November 28, 2012 at 09:39 PM
Tracy, I do respect and admire your comments. Many times good things come out of public and private undertakings. But please tell me who is running the ship (in terms of the Fort Lee School System)? Please see the point made by comment by William "Billy" Mays.
William Mays November 28, 2012 at 10:10 PM
More than one month then.
William Mays November 28, 2012 at 10:11 PM
What annoys me the most is the lack of any explanations whatsoever by the Board of Education. I don't know why we even have a Board, all they do is hide behind the board attorney.
Rona November 28, 2012 at 10:29 PM
If someone can justify salary increases based on the following stats they must be living in la-la land. Fort Lee has 409 active & 330 retirees from the Board of Education. http://www.starledger.com/str/indexpage/payrolls/active.asp http://www.starledger.com/str/indexpage/payrolls/retired.asp Time to start to cut costs & establish some fiscal responsibility. It's already way too late in the game, but we need to start somewhere.
William Mays November 28, 2012 at 10:58 PM
Yes, because teachers are paid too much. This is why America is ranked worse than other countries in education. People like you think that 40k is too much for a teacher. The ones getting 100k are either good teachers, or dinosaurs that can't be fired because of their tenure.
Tracy November 28, 2012 at 11:28 PM
Dr Sharon Amato is currently running the SD-- I do agree with all of you sentiemnts, I think where we went off track is long ago and is continued and accepted.... i would love to see it changed but the BOE needs to get cast iron and stop yeilding to special intersts. I do not have a problem if an employee uses their benefit time that they are entitled too, or is aligned with the law (both in Engravalle's case)......everyone keeps throwing up numbers as if they mean something (they did when it was negotiated but too late now)--- they do not mean a thing right now, the numbers are his benefit time, period--- fort lee does not and should not know why he is out--- medical leave is medical leave and you all are assuming things you should not (opening us up to a lawsuit)....under medical leave, he is unable to maintain the duties of a job--- I feel bad for him, he lost his wife , continually gets beat up here, only by the same few and maybe he is dealing with a medical condition that nobody wants to have, .... its even moot for me if he comes back---we are quite a bit better off then when Bandlow left....but I think we will stagnate again. anywho, my point is that the problems run deep in ft lee--- you are right for being dismayed that the BOE and the SD are in this state--- its broken! a lil better than two years ago, but still needing much more.
Tracy November 28, 2012 at 11:31 PM
billy-- it was a couple of months-- anyway, what does it have to do with? he is taking the time he accrued and is entitled too--- ce la vie!
Tracy November 28, 2012 at 11:39 PM
I am not sure there is any room for negotiation at the BOE level for any sweeping changes in salary, tenure, etc.......
Al Norton November 29, 2012 at 12:56 AM
William Mays,I must take exception to your America ranking on education.The last time I looked we are the only country to have landed much less reorbited off the moon. And heck that was while I still was attending high school beach parties.For the recors,I'm older than dirt so we must be something right!!
William Mays November 29, 2012 at 01:37 AM
Its a fact, Google it, Al.
Baba O'Riley November 29, 2012 at 02:52 AM
Al, putting men on the moon was the high point. It has been downhill ever since.
Thomas A Bennett November 29, 2012 at 02:54 AM
Hmmm calling for School Board members to be fired? I was once a member of the Fort Lee Board of Education. It was the most thankless job in the world, and I received no salary. The only way to "fire" them is to elect others. The School Board has an enormous task ahead. As I see it, there is no Superintendant present and the Assistant just quit. Add to that the FLEA contract in April and a group of retirees to replace. We have a few new Board members just coming aboard who are going to learn under pressure. I suggest that the public gives the Board some breathing room to do what has to be done and try to right the ship.
Baba O'Riley November 29, 2012 at 02:54 AM
Rona, great point. To go slightly off point, I wonder what the numbers look like at our Police Department (in terms of active v. retirees)!
Rona November 29, 2012 at 04:03 AM
To Willie May. Sir I don't think $40k is too much for a teacher. But if you look out of 409 current employees around 325 make above that figure and the remaining below either have a few years under their belt or they might be part time employees. Don't forget the retiree benefits that nobody seems to counts. Approximately 1/2 of the 330 retirees collect $40k a year or more. That sir is quite a bit of money for a retiree who can collect after 20 years of service and maybe live 20 more beyond. Where in private industry do benefits like that exist anymore?
Rona November 29, 2012 at 04:09 AM
To Baba O'reilly. Just use the links I provided in my earlier post. Currently we have 87 active policemen on the force and an incredible 190 that are retired ( a better than 2 to 1 ratio. Things like this are what brought General Motors to it's knees. Very often they retire as soon as they make their 20 year mark while their in their 40-50's and collect for 20 + years based on life expectancies. We just can't afford it anymore.
William Mays November 29, 2012 at 05:45 AM
A lot of the high earners are guidance counselors. Even 100k isn't a lot in today's world. I don't think that teachers should be punished because CEOs are getting greedy and refusing to give pensions to their employees. One of the reasons why people become public employees is the benefits, because the salaries aren't that high.
Rona November 29, 2012 at 12:40 PM
To William Mays: 325 out of 409 receive above $40K how many counselors does the town have? As for the pay where is the money coming from? Unless your a municipal employee yourself you can't be happy with the ever increasing bite your property taxes are taking out of your personal budget. Why does NJ in general have some of the highest tax rates in the country? Because of cushy contracts & rules, its the fault of the unions, over promises by politicians, and a horribly skewed arbitration process. This process needs to be reversed so the majority aren't suffering for the few.
Baba O'Riley November 29, 2012 at 03:14 PM
To, I remember when you were on the BOE. "Firing" them is a figure of speech; although I have to wonder what past and current BOE members were thinking when they hired some of these Administrators. Sadly every Board and Administration has fell short of the tasks at hand in recent history! As Lionel from Channel 11 says: Comment as you see fit!
Baba O'Riley November 29, 2012 at 03:15 PM
Rona, thanks for the information and your insight!
Baba O'Riley November 29, 2012 at 03:18 PM
Howard, "firing" them is a figure of speech. I believe that we both agree that there are serious issues facing the (Fort Lee) school system. In my opinion, both past and current BOE members and both past and current school administrators have had serious shortcomings.
Tracy November 29, 2012 at 03:34 PM
Billy-- school law is strict, add in all the privacy acts, the can tell you little...-- if the BOE began speaking, they would be opened up to liabilty lawsuits left and right.... I feel like a broken record---- ain't nobody listenin'...... nobody wants to be the change they wish to see.....
Tracy November 29, 2012 at 03:36 PM
Rona-- no one is happy about the taxes-- all of your concerns are what Gov Christie has been endlessly trying to change in the state--- and its at the state level that it will trickle down....
Rona November 29, 2012 at 04:16 PM
Maybe so but the contract negotiations will be at the local level. Christie can only define the guidelines such as the 2% annual increases. The rest is up to the local politicians to address. I've unfortunately seen several towns in Bergen granting increases in excess of the 2% cap. Which means something else in the budgeting process has to be reduced. The ultimate answer is everything should be on the table, and the salaries & benefits are a very large factor.
Tracy November 29, 2012 at 05:29 PM
The 2% annual increase refers to the SD budget overall. There salary increases are contracted and must be part of that 2%- so yes, there are cases when the union contract will call for 3-4% increase. They are two different issues and should not be confused. Where the BOE has the ability to negotiate is now - what will be the parameters of the new contract? What will be the salary step increases? So only there are we able to negotiate locally. The changes you seem to be interested in seeing are more universal. This boe has a huge task of negotiating a new contract with FLEA but is still at the mercy of past practice as well as embedded expectation of the unions-- it won't be easy!
Anna November 29, 2012 at 06:18 PM
FYI. Many, many companies in the private sector have had salary freezes for several years, on the basis of tough economic times. Times are even tougher in the public sector, so why should everyone expect a salary increase every year?
Baba O'Riley November 29, 2012 at 06:45 PM
Anna, agreed and maybe even some givebacks!
Thomas A Bennett November 30, 2012 at 12:06 PM
I can only speak for myself. When I was on the board of Education, Louis F Cole was the Superintendant. He was there when I got elected and, he was there when I left. Lou as his friends called him, was a career eductor and a dedicated man.Also the School Board Attorney was Joe Skelley, one of the brightest and sincerest men I have met. There was talk of Mr Cole's retirement and a replacement. It turned out to be Dr Sugarman who stayed there a long time. After that, things went downhill fast. We have had a few duds with Engravalle topping the list. If I was still on the Board, I would be looking for ways to part company with this man and get a qualified candidate. I have a friend who just retired as a Superintendant and one on the way up, who is a bright young man with a Docturate and a backround from great schools. If he was to apply for a Superintendant vacancy he would be around for twenty years.
Rona November 30, 2012 at 02:27 PM
I remember Mr Cole when I was in grade school back in the day. He was very well respected. Wish we could find another one like him. You'd think with unemployment the way it is somebody worthy should be out there. Unfortunately I think politics in Fort Lee are getting in the way of making a rational & needed choice.
Baba O'Riley November 30, 2012 at 04:46 PM
Agreed. For some reason the stability factor has gone away.
anthony rizzo December 03, 2012 at 12:43 AM
Most of the teachers my kids have had have been great. I think people should lay off them and focus on the administrators that keep slacking.

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