When Gov. Chris Christie battles over school funding with the state’s largest teachers union, he takes on a $131 million corporation that directs major resources into lobbying, advertising and lawsuits.

The New Jersey Education Association collected $98.4 million in dues from its members during its 2007 tax year, as is shown on its most recent Internal Revenue Service filing, which covered Sept. 1, 2007, to Aug. 31, 2008.

Those dues, paid by almost 130,000 teachers in annual increments of $731 (50,000 noncertified employees pay less), support one of the most influential lobbying forces in the state. The NJEA’s gross receipts for 2007-08, including $717,000 in proceeds from the annual convention in Atlantic City, were $131.4 million.

But the NJEA has an image problem. The tax-exempt nonprofit group that bills itself in ads as “making schools great for every child” is now vilified as being interested only in making salaries higher for every teacher and perpetuating its own power.

Gov. Chris Christie has helped paint that image, even citing the NJEA director’s salary. Executive Director Vincent Giordano earned $421,615 in 2007-08, the most recent year for which public records are available. He also received $128,508 worth of benefits and deferred compensation. That year’s salary included a one-time deferred compensation payment, but his current salary, $300,000 is still more than is earned by the governor, who makes $175,000.

NJEA officials say they are victims, scapegoats for a governor who wants to destroy public schools and replace them with a system of charter schools and vouchers.

“The governor needed a bogeyman, and we’re it,” NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer said.

Others say the NJEA created its own problems.

“They have painted themselves into a corner,” said Jerry Cantrell, president of the New Jersey Taxpayers Association. “Are they a professional education association or a union? They are still a very powerful group, but they have lost some credibility with the public.”

More than a union

The NJEA rarely calls itself a union. Even its name focuses on education rather than teachers.

It spent $5 million on advertising and $2 million on public relations in 2007-08, promoting New Jersey public school successes. It produces a feature on the New Jersey Network called Classroom Closeup featuring motivated teachers doing innovative projects with their students. Its annual convention in Atlantic City, one of the largest in the country, offers hundred of training workshops. It created a Center for Teaching and Learning and spent $6 million on training programs in 2007-08.

But that’s just one part of its mission, as stated on its IRS 990 form: “The (tax)-exempt purpose of the New Jersey Education Association is to improve its members’ professional abilities and to secure for them better salaries and working conditions, sponsor seminars and courses for its members, participate in teachers conventions, bargain collectively and process grievances, and keep its members informed of its activities.”

Its officers are well paid. Joyce Powell, a former special education teacher in Vineland, made $237,100 plus $91,522 in benefits and deferred compensation while she served as president in 2007-08. Then-Vice President Barbara Keshishian, who is now president, and Secretary-Treasurer Wendell Steinhauer each earned $160,100, plus $61,659 in benefits and deferred compensation.

That year, the NJEA also spent $41.3 million in salaries, benefits and pension contributions to staff its Trenton-based operations. Its offices are within walking distance of the Statehouse. Staff members attend legislative hearings and state Board of Education meetings. Regional offices across the state provide advice to local school-district unions.

The NJEA spent $6.6 million on legal fees in 2007-08, defending members and litigating against legislation.

“Teachers are entitled to legal services,” Wollmer said. “That is another good reason to join.”

School employees are not required to join the union but must still pay a fee for service.

This year, the NJEA also filed suit against the new state law requiring school employees to pay 1.5 percent of their salary toward their health benefits, and against an executive order that would extend pay-to-play political limits to unions.

They and other state unions won the second suit Friday, when a state appellate court said the governor did not have the authority to issue that order.

The NJEA has a separate political action committee, which donates to Democratic and Republican Legislative candidates alike. The PAC spent $1.5 million in 2009 — as shown on its January 2010 filing with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission — including tens of thousands of dollars on activities in support of Democratic Gov. Jon. S. Corzine, who lost to Christie in November.

‘Politically partisan and polarizing’

Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute, which supports public-school choice, wrote a paper for the Cato Journal on the effects of teachers unions on American education in which he called them “politically partisan and polarizing.”

In a phone interview, Coulson said teachers unions are very effective in representing their members’ interests. The problem, he said, is that they have been able to use their power to maintain a monopoly on public education in America, which he believes is not in the public’s best interest.

When times are good and money is plentiful, both the education system and the teachers benefit, he said. But when times are tough, as they are now, the union puts the teachers’ interests first, which can put them at odds with the system.

“They are very effective at lobbying to get more money into education,” he said. “And it is easier to increase salaries when all schools get more money. But the economy turned, and now teachers are often making more money than the people in the towns where they work. It sets the interests of the teachers against the parents and taxpayers.”

Opposing the NJEA is difficult. Frank Belluscio of the New Jersey School Boards Association said it often agrees with the NJEA on education issues. But when it does not, the association does not have the same influence with legislators. The NJSBA is a largely service-oriented group, with a budget of about $8 million per year.

Belluscio cited lifetime post-retirement benefits as one example of a benefit the state Legislature gave teachers at a tremendous cost to taxpayers.

The economy and political groups such as the tea-party movement have generated public awareness of union influence and are using it to promote their own agendas.

Ben Boychuk of the conservative Heartland Institute said people are beginning to realize that the unions (not the teachers themselves, he said, but their unions) wield disproportionate power in Trenton and all over the country.

“Their pension benefits are going to bankrupt us all,” he said in an e-mail. “They’re all about maintaining the status quo, not serving the public or the students.”

Wollmer said the teachers are the union, and separating them is an attempt to be divisive. He said that while 58 percent of school budgets were defeated in April, only 52 percent of total voters rejected them, indicating many people are happy with their schools.

“Teachers are freaked out right now,” he said. “They feel like they did nothing wrong. They feel victimized.”

Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, believes the NJEA is so used to winning in Trenton that it has forgotten the art of compromise in politics.

“It’s not losing just to stand back and reassess,” she said. “Times have changed. The leadership needs to adapt.”

State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, sits on both sides of the issue as a state legislator and a teacher in Atlantic City. He said he is grateful for the strides the union has made over the past 30 years in getting better salaries for teachers.

But, he said, the NJEA has to realize that the economy has changed and adjustments must be made.

“It used to be that public employees were poorly paid, but you had job security and benefits and a pension,” he said. “But now we are paid well, sometimes better than those in the private sector. It’s a fundamental shift.”

Contact Diane D’Amico:

609-272-7241