Most elementary school English language arts teachers are unaware of New Jersey’s P.L. 18A:28-11.1, but Mantua Township Education Association (MTEA) member Cheryl Tunstall can tell you all about what the law means for her and her family.

The law requires that members of the military are given service credit of four years for time served in the military.

From 1990-1997, Tunstall served in the United States Air Force during Desert Shield/Desert Storm. She worked as a physical therapy technician who implemented exercise programs and treatments that fulfilled a vital role in helping injured service members make a full recovery and return to duty. Tunstall served on Air Force bases in Texas, Maryland, New York and Upper Heyford, England. She left the service to raise a family with her husband Mike, who is retired from the Air Force.

The military was my family, and now educators are my family. I see this group as a way to connect those two families, and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to share ideas with other military veterans who are educators.

NJEA Patriots Alliance

Tunstall might never have known that she was due a substantial amount of money, if it were not for the efforts of NJEA’s Patriots Alliance. Initiated by Meredith Barnes, an NJEA Communications Division staff person and the daughter of a veteran, and Keri Giannotti, a member in Bloomfield, an NJEA Apprentice and Museum Educator at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation, the NJEA Patriots Alliance was founded to create a space where NJEA members who have served or are currently serving in the armed forces can network and share important information. Barnes contacted every regional UniServ office to inform them about the organization and encourage them to share the information with their members.

When the MTEA’s co-presidents Kathy Cartwright and Jackie Hill received the email, they immediately thought of Tunstall, who had been organizing outstanding events highlighting military service since she joined the district in 2015. These activities included writing letters to veterans and inviting a Gulf War veteran into her classroom as well as a group of Marines from various wars into the school. Tunstall’s grandfather, Theodore Schulz, a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, gave a firsthand account to her students about his experience being aboard the USS Fiske, which was sunk by a German U-boat in 1944.

Tunstall was excited to join the Patriots Alliance planning board and connect with educators who are also military veterans. “The military was my family, and now educators are my family,” Tunstall said. “I see this group as a way to connect those two families, and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to share ideas with other military veterans who are educators.”

That connection paid off almost immediately when Barnes mentioned P.L 18A:28-11.1 and the service credit that another local had been able to win for a teacher. In addition, Barnes shared with the group what some local associations had been able to negotiate for their educational support professional (ESP) members who are also veterans, but not covered under that statute.

NJEA assists veteran with salary guide placement, seniority

Barnes connected Tunstall with NJEA UniServ Representative John Staab who assigned UniServ Consultant Alison Braun to work with Tunstall and MTEA leadership. Braun explained the process for requesting the service credit, and outlined the steps the administration would have to take in order to grant it.

Braun worked with Tunstall to write a letter officially requesting the service credit and the back pay to which she was entitled. Tunstall, who is nontenured, was nervous about asking for more when she felt so grateful for the job she had. But she was strongly encouraged by Cartwright and Hill and her teaching partner, Bill Falcone.

When she submitted the letter on Dec. 13, she was immediately contacted by the superintendent who apologized for the oversight. By Jan. 8, the board voted to approve her service credit and disburse the back pay she was owed.

When Tunstall reaches tenure, she will also be credited with the additional seniority to which she is entitled.

“Having a veteran as part of our membership benefits students and staff alike,” said Kathy Cartwright, MTEA co-president. “Cheryl has brought a renewed sense of patriotic pride to our district. It has been a pleasure advocating for members who had given a part of their lives defending our freedoms.”

“Not only is Cheryl proud of her time in service, but she shows her students how to give back to the soldiers that are enlisted now,” said Jackie Hill, MTEA co-president. “My daughter enlisted in the Army last year and Cheryl took it upon herself to send my daughter a card from her class that everyone signed to lift her spirits during her basic training, which Cheryl knew would be tough. My daughter could not talk to anyone; this was her only way of keeping in touch with her family. This meant a lot to me and my daughter. We are so glad that we could do something for her as a union.”

“I’m new to the union concept,” Tunstall said, “I’ve been very impressed by the amount of support I’ve received from my education family. It’s just been a very exhilarating experience for me.”

If you are a military veteran or currently serving (JROTC instructor, New Jersey National Guard, or the reserves) who would like to join the NJEA Patriots Alliance, email Meredith Barnes below.

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