In a tremendous display of union strength and solidarity, NJEA members from around the state flooded the Wayne Board of Education meeting on September 19. Led by NJEA President Marie Blistan and Vice President Sean Spiller, as well as Passaic County Education Association President Susan Butterfield, these members turned out to support the Wayne Education Association’s (WEA) president, Eda Ferrante, as she, and members of her local association, challenged the Wayne Board of Education’s unilateral decision to return her to the classroom for daily duty, despite language in the collectively negotiated contract agreement that defines and ensures her full-time release status.
Blistan fired up the crowd prior to heading inside to the meeting.
“Since 1849, this community has been in existence. Since 1849, people have flocked to come here, and today, I can stand unequivocally and tell you that they live here because of this public school system,” Blistan declared. “They live here because it’s not just a school board, it’s not just the parents, it’s not just the students, and it’s not just ‘we the educators’. It’s beause this system, this town, knew a long time ago that it was going to literally take a village to educate a child.”
The Board of Education recently ordered Ferrante, who is beginning her fourth year as association president, to report back to the classroom, where she is a full-time history teacher. This action came as a result of the August 22 Appellate Division decision, Rozenblit v. Lyles, that provided that the school leave law did not permit school boards the authority to pay the salaries of the local association president while released from his/her regular assignment. The court also concluded that the section of the collective bargaining agreement that provided for full-time release salaries was against public policy and unenforceable, and that the Board’s distribution of funds in this regard was outside of its authority. The NJEA, however, contends that the Court’s decision is incorrect because Boards of Education have the broad authority to fix the terms of compensation through collective bargaining, unless otherwise limited by statute.
Ferrante is currently assigned to a temporary-leave position until mid-October, when the teacher whom she is replacing is scheduled to return. She has been informed that she will subsequently be placed elsewhere, meaning that in a few short weeks, Ferrante will be sent to a new school, with new students and a new curriculum. WEA Secretary Dennis Carroll took issue with the Board’s stance, urging them to think about the effects this is having on Wayne educators and support staff.
“You are engaged in this powerplay with your interpretation of what can and cannot be full-time release,” Carroll said. “How do you think the educators of this district feel about this latest attempt at dishonoring a collectively bargained agreement?”
Release time for local presidents has been a common practice in NJ for more than 50 years, and has the approval of the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC). In Wayne, the presence of a full-time release president is a practice that spans the last decade, and has, time and time again, been a proven benefit to all stakeholders in the school community. Before being elected as an NJEA officer, Spiller was the full-time release president in Wayne, and he spoke to his experience there as evidence for the ongoing need to maintain the status quo, both in Wayne as well as around the state.
“Wayne is not the only place with a release-time agreement; Wayne is not the only place with challenges; Wayne is not the only place looking out for kids, but in many of those districts, quite frankly, in most of those districts, things have been worked out,” Spiller stated. “People find a way to come together, people put kids first, and look for solutions. That is what we are all asking for here.”
It is nearly impossible to quantify the amount of time a full-time release president spends supporting the school community and the rights of the members they serve. Through her work as a full-time release president, Ferrante addresses issues, enhances professional development opportunities, resolves employment conflicts, strengthens community relationships and advocates on behalf of the thousands of students attending Wayne’s public schools. Moreover, in the last few months, the WEA has worked tirelessly to try to re-establish a working, functional relationship with the Board.
“This most recent action does not move them ahead; it continues to erode the labor-management relationship, ironically making the need for a full-time release president even more vital,” said NJEA Field Representative Lori Cintron, who works with the WEA and its members. “The WEA is protecting its association’s rights and pursuing all avenues of relief under the collective bargaining laws in the State of New Jersey, including, but not limited to, negotiations, grievance policies and all relief available through PERC.”
The WEA went into the September 19 meeting with the hope to be afforded the opportunity to discuss and negotiate alternatives to additional legal action. Their efforts paid off, as Ferrante and Cintron met with Wayne Schools Superintendent Mark Toback on September 20 to seek a resolution that will continue to serve the best interests of the students and the community. The board will now consider these alternatives at their October 3 meeting.
“I am very optimistic that the board and administration are willing to hammer out a plan and to look at different solutions to resolve this problem”, said Ferrante.