VINELAND — Teachers and school officials reached a tentative agreement Thursday after more than a year of negotiations and eight months without a contract.
Vineland Education Association President Lou Russo said he couldn’t share the details of the new contract until after it was finalized and voted on.
Thursday was the penultimate moment for teachers in the district who have been working without a contract since last summer.
Either they would reach an agreement, or a new mediator would be brought in for the final phase of negotiations known as super-conciliation. As school officials and union representatives met for the last time inside the board office with a fact-finder appointed by the state, outside the all-day negotiations session, teachers from throughout the district picketed for a new contract.
Teachers, who have been picketing before and after school, have been working without a contract since June 30. Russo said the staff has been cut over the years, impacting education, while the board fails to raise taxes.
Superintendent Mary Gruccio said Thursday morning the district was working toward a contract.
“We are working diligently to reach a fair and equitable resolution which takes into consideration the efforts of our hardworking employees and the burden to our taxpayers,” Gruccio said.
Russo said the tentative agreement reached Thursday is pending the mutual development of salary guides, then both the union and the board will vote.
“Our advocacy for smaller class sizes, high-quality educational programs for our students, public support for education will continue, however,” Russo said Thursday night.
The Vineland Education Association represents about 980 teachers, secretaries and other certificated staff across the district’s nine schools.
The union’s last three-year contract included a 2.5 percent increase each year for all salaries, and each year the teachers would move up a step on the salary guide. In the last year of the contract, a new employee with a bachelor’s degree would earn a salary of $55,533, while an employee at the highest step, 19 with a master’s plus 30 credit hours, would earn $86,399.
According to the Department of Education, the statewide average salary increase for 2018-19 was 2.92 percent. Of the 211 districts whose teacher contracts expired in June 2018, at least 138 have reached a new agreement.
Russo said if the school district doesn’t have the funds to pay for the teachers, they must take some of the blame.
Vineland has about 10,000 students and 933 certificated staff members. In 2018, the district had a budget of $175.4 million and saw its second year of reduced state aid, having lost $2 million in 2017-18. The district’s aid will continue to be reduced over the next six years by a total of $8 million as the state phases out adjustment aid under its amended school funding law, passed in July.
Russo said that in the past 10 years, there have been cuts to staffing, while there have been few tax increases to make up for the rising costs. State records show certificated staff in 2009 totaled 1,083.
“Through attrition, we’re a skeleton crew left, and it begins to impact the classroom,” Russo said.
He said affordability is important and times are tough for a lot of people, but educators believe schools and education are the most critical function behind basic safety.
The district’s budget is expected to be presented in mid-March.