Northern Valley Regional Teachers Assistants organize, join NJEA

By Kathryn Coulibaly

The 155 teacher assistants who work in the Northern Valley Regional School District, which includes Demarast and Old Tappan high schools, and also provide services to special education students in its sending districts, believed their health benefits were safe, despite the fact that they were nonunionized.

But on May 15, 2018, they learned otherwise. On that day, the district administration presented the teacher assistants with their new contract. Since the teacher assistants did not have a union, there was no discussion or information provided the staff before the contract was revealed to them—and they had no recourse to change the contract’s contents.

The district was moving the teacher assistants from Direct 10 to 2035 with a high deductible. There would be an opportunity to “buy up” for better coverage, but the costs were out of reach for most of the staff.

“The news was horrible,” said Rose McPartland. “We each got a letter with information on insurance changes. Included with the letter was a pink slip instructing us to return the signed contract and health care form to the superintendent in two weeks.”

The teacher assistants were told that if they did not sign and return their letters by the deadline, it would be considered a resignation.

“We were in shock,” said Jill McGuire. “We were horrified to find out what the board was doing to us. We were worried about what would happen to our families. Our starting salary is about $21,000. Most of the people who work here rely heavily on their medical benefits. Without quality benefits, we knew we would lose a lot of good people who really care about our students.

The teaching assistants were motivated to unionize to ensure that nothing like this would ever happen again.

“We are the educators who work one-on-one with the district’s most vulnerable students, from pre-school through age 21,” McGuire continued. “We were really worried about what the consequences of the board’s decision would be on our students.”

In a letter the teaching assistants sent to the board, they acknowledged “given that we are union-less and lack a collectively bargained contract, we have had little recourse to advocate for ourselves in the process of this decision.”

The teaching assistants were motivated to unionize to ensure that nothing like this would ever happen again.

About 60 teaching assistants met to discuss the board’s health care changes and began an email chain that helped them to communicate and mobilize. Spread across multiple buildings and towns, communication is challenging for the group.

McPartland did her research, made phone calls, and got NJEA Field Representative George Lambert’s contact information.

“My contacts told me, ‘George is the person you need,’” she recalled.

The teaching assistants never considered joining any other union but NJEA.

“I didn’t realize that we were the only school employees in the district, besides the computer technicians, who weren’t unionized,” McGuire said. “We trusted that the board would take care of us. We didn’t think that we had to have a union because we had a very supportive principal who fought for us and our benefits.”

“When I took this job, I asked if it was a unionized position and I was assured that ‘we are a family here and we take care of our family,’” McGuire remembered. “Well, we were a family until we weren’t anymore. If we’d had the benefit of collective bargaining, the board would not have been able to unilaterally reduce our insurance benefits.”

The teaching assistants began organizing immediately. Because they work September through July, they were able to maintain their momentum even with the traditional end of the school year looming. Beginning in June and continuing throughout the summer, the teaching assistants collected union cards. By Oct. 19, they had returned all their cards and were formally recognized by the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC). The board made no efforts to oppose the newly organized local association, known as the Northern Valley Teachers Assistants Association (NVTAA).

And while the teaching assistants are excited about their new union, the protections and voice that it affords them, and negotiating their first contract, a lot of the damage has already been done.

Staff is working under the newly imposed health benefit reductions, and many are struggling to pay the cost of health care for their families.

The health care changes and other administrative decisions have led to low morale and an exodus out of the district. 

“I came from another district, where I was in a union, to Northern Valley because I wanted to work full time,” said Lisa Carbaugh. “I had been on the negotiations team in my previous district. It’s so sad to see the lack of support from the board here. I was disappointed to find out they were not unionized here. Board members, administrators, and teachers aren’t fully aware of all that we do. Many people have left the district, and many others continue to look for a new job. Morale is very low in the district and administration is having a hard time finding new hires.”

Lisa Carbaugh and Nicole Cowley are negotiations chairs; Jill McGuire is the local president; Nicole Cowley is the vice-president; Rose McPartland is secretary and Káersten Levi and Denise Reeves are the treasurers.

Eager for a better future

Despite the painful way the union formed, the members are eager for the future.

“I want our union to be able to sit with the board and have the benefit of collective bargaining,” McGuire said. “I believe we were robbed of these benefits. We are the lowest-paid employees in the district. The benefits are the most important part of the salary package and we’re going to fight for them.”

“We’re very concerned about privatization,” Levi said. “So many people have left the district, and the district’s reputation among people who do this work is so poor, that they’re not able to fill the open positions. Administration brought in an agency to staff these teaching assistant positions, but the people they’re bringing in don’t understand or seem to want to do the work. They think they are overqualified and refuse to handle some of the students’ needs.

The teaching assistants never considered joining any other union but NJEA.

“On top of everything, we’re short-staffed and expected to fit training into our already overwhelming workload. At reduced benefits?” Levi wondered. “Even if I wanted to, there’s just not enough time. My first priority is seeing to the students’ needs. It is beyond frustrating to see the students not get what they need.

“If you hire a math teacher, you expect her to be able to teach math,” Levi continued. “If you hire a teaching assistant, you need someone who knows how to do what we do. We’re changing diapers and helping to toilet-train some of our students.”

Connecting with other local association ESP members

The NVTAA is learning more about NJEA’s advocacy on the educational support professional (ESP) bills currently before the Legislature. That kind of activism on their issues reinforces their decision to join the union.

“We’re already working to register members for NJEA conferences and get them networking with other local association members as soon as possible,” said Lambert. “These members have felt alone. Although they work in a big district, their work can feel very isolated. And when the district imposed a contract with benefits reductions on them, they had no power as individuals. It was sign, or leave. But now, they’re part of an organization that encompasses 200,000 members statewide and more than three million nationally. They’re not alone anymore.”

“I feel in hindsight that we were an easy target because we didn’t have a union,” McGuire said. “We didn’t have the benefit of collective bargaining. Without that, you have no recourse, no warning, and no way to protect yourselves.”

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at kcoulibaly@njea.org.

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