The dispute between the Hopatcong Education Association and the school board landed before the board Monday in the form of about 150 picketing union members.
The picket line marched in a slow circle between the high school and the board office prior to Monday’s board meeting, which was moved to the high school auditorium to accommodate the large crowd.
The picket line was held to bring attention to the lingering issue of contract language regarding a new state law about health benefit payments that both sides say should be in the contract.
The sides reached agreement on a 3-year contract in January, and the contract language issue was discovered during the process of reconciling the old contract and the new one.
The board is withholding a scheduled 1.95 percent pay raise that was due at the start of the school, and in response the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the New Jersey Pubic Employees Relations Commission.
The contract language relates to changes in the state law that mandate the level of payroll contributions required of teachers to pay for their health care benefits. Both sides agree the levels of withholding is set by state law.
“This could be settled in 10 minutes,” said Superintendent Charles Maranzano.
What’s needed is a firm date for the mediation session between the union and the board, which had not yet been set. Maranzano said the session might be scheduled in November.
What’s needed is a “clarification” of the contract language to indicate that state law supersedes any provision on the contract, he said.
Maranzano said he understands the teachers’ frustration. By law they must pay a portion of their health benefit costs, and since their pay hike has been withheld, “their pay has dropped.”
John Ropars, union representative for the Hopatcong teachers, said a meeting with PERC has been set Nov. 1.
The protest was created to bring attention to the issue, he said. The union claimed that a clause in the contract that says that nothing in the contract can supersede state law is sufficient.
“The board knew that language is in the contract,” Ropars said. “This will not save the board a nickel or cost them one nickel.”
In the board meeting, board president Clifford Lundin said that a signed copy of memorandum of agreement dated Jan. 30 contained a note with an asterisk that indicated the state mediator noted that the health benefit language needed a clarification to show that the provision for “full health care coverage” written into the old contract had been superseded by state law.
That statement was greeted by a chant by the teachers of “bad faith, bad faith,” which carried on for a minute or two until they left the auditorium.
Lundin said the salary increase due for the first year of the contract was paid retroactively, but until the board and the union settle the contract language issue, and thus have a ratified contract, the board can not pay the next round of salary increases.
A copy of the Jan. 30 memorandum supplied by Ropars does not have the comment with the asterisk that Lundin claimed.
Instead an italicized notation with an asterisk is present in a copy of a June 6 note from Maranzano to Jeff Ryder, then president of the Hopatcong teachers union, and Jim Marino, chairperson of the high school negotiations committee, which Lundin made available.
In that June 6 memo, Maranzano said he failed to point out a change in the article of the contract related to “insurance.”
That change, printed in bold under the section entitled “full health care coverage” says “*This provision has been superseded by statute.”