School officials in districts where teachers took wage freezes to save jobs want to know if they can use proposed federal stimulus money to restore raises for the 2010-11 school year. If not, they say, the districts and their employees would be punished financially for having taken the wage freeze the governor requested.

A bill that passed the U.S. Senate last week and is scheduled for a vote today in the House of Representatives would provide $10 billion nationally and $268 million to New Jersey to restore teaching and other education-related jobs in both pre-K to 12 systems and state colleges. The money targets the 2010-11 school year, but it is possible some funds could carry into 2011-12.

Statewide, some staff in 161 districts agreed to a wage freeze for the 2010-11 school year, which began July 1, state Department of Education data show. Teachers unions in 31 districts, including Lacey Township in Ocean County and Millville in Cumberland County, agreed to take no raises for the 2010-11 school year. In Egg Harbor Township, the teachers union agreed to a half-year wage freeze.

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In Lacey Township, the wage freeze saved $1.5 million and 16 jobs, Superintendent Richard Starodub said, and the district will have no layoffs this school year. He sent letters to Gov. Chris Christie and Education Commissioner Bret Schundler saying it is essential that the district be given the stimulus funds to restore the raises to assure parity with districts that did not freeze wages but instead had layoffs.

"If money is only given to restore the jobs of people who were laid off, then we won't meet the criteria," Starodub said. "We specified that the wage freeze was to save jobs and now we may be punished for that."

Michael Shern, president of the Lacey Township Education Association, said if the raises were restored this year, they would keep open the option of a wage freeze next year, when budgets are still expected to be tight. He estimated the average raise this year would be about 3.8 percent based on the current contract.

"We took the freeze because the majority of employees felt saving the jobs was more important that getting a raise," Shern said. "But it would be nice if we could give this back to our members. There is no way we will take another freeze next year, but if we get the raise this year, we would consider postponing the freeze until next year."

Christie actively promoted wage freezes, and on Monday his spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said the issue of using stimulus money to restore the raises is a valid question, but one they cannot answer until the final federal bill is passed and they know exactly how the money can be used.

Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, said members also will wait to see the final legislation, but their primary concern is getting unemployed teachers back to work. The NJEA estimated as many as 10,000 positions were lost in the budget cuts, although many were retirements that were just not filled.

"This does raise an interesting question," Baker said of the wage freezes, " but we'll have to see how the final law is written."

Statewide, 81 percent of school officials who responded to a New Jersey School Boards Association survey released Monday said they would reduce their teaching staff this year. Almost half, 47 percent, said staff would be reduced by 5 percent or less. Another third, or 37 percent, said they would reduce staff by 6 percent to 10 percent. Another 11 percent said staffing would be reduced by as much as 15 percent and 4.6 percent said they would be reducing staff by at least 16 percent.

School officials in Millville and Egg Harbor Township did not return calls Monday. Millville's pay freeze was estimated to save $1.5 million and was expected to help restore at least some of the 43 positions cut from the budget. Egg Harbor Township had proposed cutting as many as 61 positions but reduced that to 15 through a wage freeze and other savings.

Kathy Waszen, president of the Egg Harbor Township Education Association, said they accepted a partial wage freeze to save jobs, and would consider postponing the freeze if necessary to next year if the stimulus money could fund raises this year.

"We can't just keep taking a freeze," she said. "But if we can use the (stimulus) money now, then we still have the option of taking the freeze next year when the 2 percent budget cap is in place."

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