By Christy Kanaby
In Greek mythology, the phoenix is a long-lived bird that arises from the ashes of its predecessor. For the 180 members of the Clinton Township Education Association (CTEA), it became a powerful symbol of strength and renewal.
Early last month, CTEA ratified a long-awaited contract, marking the end of working seven of the last nine years under an expired agreement. While simply breaking the cycle of protracted bargaining fatigue alone is cause for celebration, it was even more special for CTEA. The ratification also marked the end of a long, hard road of internal and external organizing to get them to this point.
In many ways, the deck was stacked against them, as the district was in a constant state of chaos. There had been four superintendents in the previous five years, three business administrators in the same time frame, and the human resources director was escorted out of the district after just a few weeks on the job. Additionally, the board of education made a unilateral decision to close one of the district’s schools for the 2019-20 school year, without prior notification or warning—despite community outcry. There was so much turmoil that the superintendent from Lebanon, a sending district, notified the board of education that his students would no longer be attending Clinton Township public schools.
In addition to constant bargaining issues and administrative turnover, CTEA struggled with internal support and consistent advocacy for its members as a result of the its own upheavals. Many educators sought employment elsewhere, and the turnover rate was staggering: nearly 120 staff members left Clinton Township schools in the span of five years. Those who stayed were downtrodden, and the only thing keeping them in the district was their commitment to the Clinton Township students and community.
At the root of all the problems was the board of education president, Maria Grant. These issues continued to mount during Grant’s 10-year tenure as board president, and she indicated no willingness to address them.
The final insult came when CTEA had to file an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) with the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) to get the board to come to the table to negotiate with the union. Recognizing that her members could no longer sustain the current climate and that they needed to rediscover their voices, newly elected CTEA President Kelly Hill turned to NJEA Field Representative Fred Skirbst for assistance.
Skirbst assembled a team of NJEA staff members from multiple divisions to join CTEA leadership over the summer of 2019 to develop a plan to strengthen the local, elect pro-labor, pro-public education candidates to the board of education and secure a fair and equitable contract settlement.
That plan was unveiled at the CTEA’s first general membership meeting of the 2019-20 school year in August. Vowing to move forward with a commitment of transparency and union support, Hill urged CTEA members to come together to win this battle, while acknowledging the mistakes of the past.
“Instead of coming together and directing all our frustrations and anger and energy at those responsible, we’d fallen into the trap of creating a circular firing squad,” Hill said. “I am just as guilty of this. And while debate and disagreement are healthy parts of any organization, it does us absolutely no good to remain fractured. If we are fractured, we are weak—and it’s a near-certainty that the board of education and administration has been taking and will continue to take advantage of any and all weaknesses that we display.”
From that point forward, CTEA took an active role in executing its plan, first by engaging the community to focus on the upcoming board elections in November. CTEA developed a questionnaire, which was sent to all BOE candidates, and circulated the answers to its members and the community. They also partnered with the PTA to support the PTA’s first-ever “Candidates’ Night” event in October.
Meanwhile, NJEA staff began to visit each district school building throughout September and October to amplify CTEA’s efforts and provide support and resources to its members. Through these meetings, it was revealed that the district was not in compliance with many special education regulations after firing, without any explanation, all district paraprofessionals the previous June. The district forced them to reapply for their jobs. To add insult to injury, CTEA discovered the district was also considering the privatization of its paraprofessional staff and was illegally using an outside service to fill any open paraprofessional positions.
Knowing the parents were unaware of these issues, CTEA began to host a series of community meetings to share concerns and solicit support. Outraged parents organized their own coalitions and shared information on social media. The various stakeholders made plans to attend the upcoming board meetings to express their displeasure.
Throughout it all, CTEA developed clever ways to call attention to their issues. At one board meeting, attendees carried and placed 120 black balloons around the auditorium, each symbolizing a staff member who had left under the strain of working in such a chaotic and unpredictable environment.
It was there, that Hill threw down the gauntlet and declared that it was a new era. In her remarks, Hill admonished the board and, looking squarely at Grant, cautioned against any retaliation for their efforts.
“Many members of this board—especially its leadership—choose to bully and intimidate them for expressing their views,” said Hill. “Let me be perfectly clear: That stops right here and right now.”
While CTEA continued to organize its members and the community, it kept a watchful eye for the fact finder’s report. Originally expected to be available in early September, the report continued to be delayed, month after month. Fact finding is a step in the bargaining process used to reach an agreement between the board and the association when both regular face-to-face negotiations and negotiations conducted by a state-appointed mediator fail to yield a settlement. A state-appointed fact finder hears testimony from both parties and writes a report containing a proposed agreement.
The CTEA and NJEA staff team used that lag time to educate its members about the collective bargaining process, as well as share what the fact finder may write in his report. Members were informed how breakage—the money a district saves when someone of experience leaves the district and a lesser-experienced person replaces them—to understand the ways in which the district continued to make money as a result rampant turnover.
Additionally, CTEA members learned how increment cost—the money it takes to move between steps on the guide—affects settlements, and why the CTEA negotiations team needed to hold firm for a settlement above the county average.
As CTEA members’ confidence in their association increased, it dramatically declined in board president’s ability to lead. After much discussion, the CTEA initiated a vote of no confidence against Grant.
On Oct. 23, over 96% of the CTEA membership cast ballots, with 92% voting in favor of a vote of no confidence against Grant. At the Oct. 28 board meeting, CTEA members packed the auditorium to demonstrate their unity in the vote taken. Joined by dozens of parents and community members, they held up signs and handmade mirrors, urging Grant to reflect on how terrible things had become with the mantra, “This is not normal!”
In addition to Hill, CTEA Executive Vice President Ronda Ferri, CTEA Negotiations Co-Chair Penny McFadden and Action Chair Julie Mooney addressed the board, informing them of the vote and outlining the 31 grievances the association levied against Grant.
“We have no confidence in Maria Grant because, under her leadership and at her direction, the board has provided no stable leadership in the district administration, no financial stability and no indication of a willingness to address these issues and concerns,” said Mooney. “This is not normal, and more importantly, it will not be tolerated any longer.”
Recognizing the challenges and limitations an endorsement poses, CTEA supported the candidates who shared a commitment to restoring order within the district without formally issuing endorsements. The CTEA knew there were plenty of NJEA members throughout their community who understood what was at stake.
The weeks leading up to the elections became tense and full of accusations, as the incumbent and his running mate took to the Clinton Township residents Facebook page to “explain” the grievances levied against Grant, as well as attempted to discredit vocal parents and their opponents.
Undeterred, CTEA members canvassed the town in the days before the election, visiting only NJEA members’ homes and sharing their views. Additionally, using the Hustle app, other NJEA members living in Clinton Township were contacted and urged to lend their support.
Their efforts paid off. On Nov. 5, four pro-labor, pro-public education candidates— Jennifer Kaltenbach, Scott Hornick, Alison Grantham and Laura Brasher—were overwhelmingly elected to the board.
With the election of these new board members, hope began to emerge. Grant was not re-elected as board president, and public meetings began to run more efficiently and openly. Recognizing that it was the beginning of the journey, not the end, Hill addressed the board and community to urge all stakeholders to come together to put Clinton Township on the path to healing.
“For the last two months, CTEA members have been vocal about the problems that we face here in Clinton Township,” declared Hill. “We’ve said that we intend to find solutions, and we believe that in the wake of the elections earlier this month, we are now on the path to achieving them. This is the beginning of a ‘new normal’ in our school district, and it’s going to take every one of us—CTEA members, administrators, parents and board of education members—to work together to make it a reality.”
With the fact finder report still nowhere in sight, the CTEA negotiations team rolled up its sleeves and reached out to the new board negotiations team to get back to the table. Embracing the new collaborative relationship being fostered, both sides met over the course of several weeks to reach a settlement. On March 4, both parties signed a memorandum of agreement, and the wait was over.
“After working at it for over 1,000 days, it’s challenging not to be in a state of disbelief that we finally settled our contract,” said McFadden. “We have worked long and hard to reach a settlement that serves the interests of our students, teachers, support staff and our community,” “Patience, persistence and organizing worked for us in the end. We had an amazing team, and this settlement is a testament to their extraordinary efforts, time and commitment.”
McFadden’s co-chair, Jayson Hill, echoed her sentiments, adding that it was also the unwavering efforts of the CTEA members and NJEA team that netted this result.
“CTEA members collectively rose to the challenge by becoming active members of our school community,” Hill added. “From attending board meetings and rallying in front of the schools to wearing our logo on shirts as a display of our unity, the consistent support of our members made it possible for us to stand our ground on key issues. We appreciate all the NJEA support we received, especially from our UniServ Field Representative Fred Skirbst. Our local association could do the right thing for our members because he organized help from other representatives and members from around the state. We’re grateful to have had the support of many caring, knowledgeable NJEA staff.”
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, neither side had the opportunity to meet with its respective members in person to review the tentative agreement. Undaunted, the CTEA leadership worked to develop a virtual ratification process, and on May 1, the membership voted overwhelmingly to approve the deal, with the board of education following suit at their May 4 meeting. Their new-found partnership was evident with the two groups issuing a joint statement—the first in years—announcing the good news.
“The phoenix is the perfect symbol for what has taken place here,” said Skirbst. “We utilized the basics that have made NJEA and all unions successful to help CTEA. It was those tried-and-true efforts that fostered their rebirth into a stronger association, and it’s an unequivocal example of what can be accomplished when we all work together.”
Christy Kanaby is an associate director in the NJEA Communications Division. One of her primary assignments is serving as the communications specialist in the UniServ regional offices in the Northwest Zone, which includes Clinton Township. In addition, she is the editor of the NJREA Newsletter, oversees the Read Across New Jersey, Teacher for a Day and Pinch Hit for an ESP programs. Kanaby has extensive communications experience in anti-privatization initiatives. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.