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.”