MILLVILLE - The Board of Education approved a three-year contract for teachers that freezes their pay for next year.

The board and Millville Education Association agreed to a three-year deal retroactive to last July, when the previous contract expired. It includes a pay raise of 3.75 percent for 2009-10, no increase in 2010-11 and a 3.25 percent raise for 2011-12.

Because it passed before the May 21 deadline, it also allows teachers to avoid having to pay 1.5 percent of their salaries toward their health benefits, as mandated by Gov. Chris Christie, until the contract expires.

Contracts for the Millville Administrators Association and Millville Support Services also were approved at the meeting. Each contract includes one year of pay freezes.

MEA President Joe DeMarco said the new contract was submitted to the union late last week and approved by 94 percent of its members, adding that the widespread support shows most district employees understand the difficult economy and are willing to make sacrifices.

Veteran teachers can go a year with a pay freeze, he said, but new teachers, those most affected by the pay freeze, still supported the contract.

"Nobody likes taking a pay freeze," he said. "A lot of people who don't make a lot of money agreed to take a pay freeze."

He said he hopes the savings, which he estimated at $1.5 million, and the retirement of more than 30 workers will allow the board to rehire the employees it has laid off over the past couple of years.

Christie has asked the state's public employees to take a pay freeze, but DeMarco said he believes only a couple of dozen teachers unions throughout the state have agreed to do so.

The pay freeze was on the table throughout contract negotiations. The union fought to have it removed, but the board would not concede, he said.

The looming contract deadline and the mandatory 1.5 percent salary benefit payment helped get the deal done.

"It was a motivation," DeMarco said of avoiding the benefits payment. "We certainly were aware of it."

The pay freeze will keep teachers locked into their current year on the salary guide. So teachers entering their 10th year on the job will remain on the ninth year of the salary guide.

On the board's side, President Bill Herman, who was involved in negotiations only because most of the other board members have conflicts due to relatives working in the district, thanked the teachers for their cooperation in the process.

He echoed DeMarco's sentiments about hiring back teachers recently laid off. The district recently notified 43 of its employees that they would lose their jobs by the end of the school year.

"The pay freeze was the impetus to get this done so we can bring people back to work," Herman said. "That's our goal."

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