|The Freehold Regional Education Association was honored as a nominee for the NJEA Jim George Collective Bargaining Award. From left: NJEA UniServ Field Rep Brian Furry, FREA Negotiations Chair Jim Huebner, FREA Association Rep and NJEA Executive Committee member Vicki McKeon, NJEA President Barbara Keshishian, NJEA Vice President Wendell Steinhauer, and NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Marie Blistan.
The Freehold Regional Education Association is the first local association in New Jersey to achieve a starting salary of over $60,000 ($60,050). And despite having reached impasse, the board and the association reached tentative agreement before the previous agreement expired.
“That wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my members,” said FREA President Debbie Gates-Kane. “Every member of FREA makes it their business to show up and do what needs to be done.”
Freehold Regional is a large school district with over 1,000 FREA members spread over six high schools.
“In a large local like ours that is so spread out, there’s a lot of enthusiasm and things people want to do, but a lot of competing ideas of how to do it,” said FREA Vice President Jim Huebner. “Debbie does a masterful job of pointing members in the same direction and not at each other.”
An early and a strong start
Under the guidance of Huebner, who also serves as negotiations chair, the local took its first steps to prepare for bargaining over a year before the contract was due to expire. By early November 2011 the team had already completed its research, had crafted a proposal, and had sent a letter to the board to schedule negotiations sessions.
The board’s and association teams met frequently in January and February. By the sixth meeting, it was clear that the teams had come to impasse.
Gates-Kane and the members of the FREA didn’t wait until they had an expired contract to show their unity. In March 2012, four months before the contract was due to expire, nearly all of FREA’s 1,000 members came out in force to the monthly school board meeting. Members were already wearing special shirts and sporting special bracelets to signify their support for their negotiations team.
“I wanted the board to understand that either we deal with this now, or we’re going to have a problem,” Gates-Kane said.
That early, strong show of force paid off.
With an outside mediator agreed upon by the teams, and approved by the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC), the teams came to a tentative agreement June 20 at 3 a.m.
Salary guide sets new state goal
Huebner said he wanted to get to work on the guides the night the tentative was reached, but the board wasn’t ready. The teams agreed to use the summer to work out guides.
“Getting a $60,000 dollar starting salary in this settlement was a goal ever since we finished the last round of bargaining,” Huebner said. “I knew that if we got the percentages right, we could do it this time.”
Guides were established with little disagreement between the teams, and in the 2014-15 year of the contract, FREA set a new bar for local associations across New Jersey to reach.
“I made sure that there was that extra $50 in the $60K salary so that it would be over $60K,” Huebner joked.
Both Huebner and Gates-Kane noted that the conclusion of this round of negotiations has set the association, board, and administration on a positive path.
“We got a really good contact, and we feel good about it,” Huebner concluded. “It was a good agreement for both sides, and there’s a real spirit of cooperation now with the administration and a majority of the board that hadn’t existed for quite a while.”