The Jersey City Board of Education can breathe a collective sigh of relief: Its moral compass is winging away to sunnier climes, leaving Jersey City families — and New Jersey taxpayers across the state — in a nasty spot.
How nasty? The State Ethics Board has rendered judgement on two Board members. The new contract approved last Monday by the Board of Education is fiscally unviable. And the repercussions of that contract will hurt taxpayers across the state.
On Friday I spoke to Matt Schapiro, the lone board member with a conscience. He’s moving to California because his wife got a great job there. I had spoken to him earlier about his/Jersey City’s/New Jersey’s predicament, which I wrote about in March. At that time Board President Sudhan Thomas and Board member Lorenzo Richardson were allegedly negotiating privately with the teachers’ union without board authority or direction, a violation of the Ethics Code. In addition, the Jersey City Education Association (JCEA, the local teacher union) owns the Board. As I wrote then,
In fact, the Jersey City Board President Sudhan Thomas, along with six other board members, appears to function as an arm of the local teacher union, the Jersey City Education Association (JCEA), whose mothership NJEA supplied the bulk of his campaign funding. (A slate of three candidates– Mussab Ali, Marilyn Roman and Joan Terrell-Paige — swept school board elections in November. They received $31,227 in campaign donations last year, $24,000 from the statewide teachers union and $2,500 from JCEA.
At that time Matt filed an ethics complaint with the State Ethics Commission. The Commission issued an Advisory Opinion on April 3d. (See the bottom of this post for the full opinion.) Regarding Lorenzo Richardson, the Commission opined that
Mr. Richardson may have opted to support the JCEA over the Board and its individual members when he joined the JCEA in filing a lawsuit. Whether Mr. Richardson’s decision was predicated on the support he received from the JCEA during his election, or stemmed from his belief that the actions of certain Board members were inappropriate, his action has the appearance of paying allegiance to the JCEA. By aligning himself with the JCEA to the detriment of the Board and its individual members, it would be reasonable for a member of the public to believe that his involvement violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(b) and/or N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(c). Therefore, the Commission advises that Mr. Richardson should refrain from being involved in future negotiation discussions and meetings, as well as votes related to the JCEA, for the remainder of his current term
And regarding Board President Sudhan Thomas
Regarding Mr. Thomas’ endorsement by the NJEA and the contribution to his personal company, the Commission notes that these allegations are the subject of a pending complaint and, therefore, the Commission is presently unable to opine on this issue.
So it’s pretty clear: The contract negotiations with JCEA were conducted without direction from the full board and by at least one board member who shouldn’t have been involved at all.
Last Monday night the Board voted on this new contract.
It passed, of course: Matt was the only “nay” vote. Then again, he never got to see the contract, only a three-paragraph summary, and, in fact, the vote didn’t get added to the agenda until sometime Monday so the public had no advance notice. By the way, N.J.’s Sunshine Law requires agendas to be made public 48 hours before public meetings. Well-functioning boards only add last-minute items, which they label “New Business,” when there’s no alternative.
Clearly there was an alternative.
But that’s the way it works in Jersey City. How bad is it? Matt, a duly-elected representative of the public who won his seat without JCEA support, had to file an Open Public Records Act request in order to see the schedule of Board committee meetings. When he speaks at meetings, Thomas shuts him down.
I was on a school board for twelve years and in contact with board members across the state. I’ve never heard of a board ostracizing a member like this. Matt told me that the Board has “done an outstanding job of radical non-transparency. They’ve made it relatively impossible for opposing voices to be heard. I can’t activate concerned citizens when there’s so little to go on. We’re up against a behemoth with an obscene amount of money [JCEA] and a board with no scruples.”
Now let’s turn to the contract itself. (See here for the Memorandum of Agreement.) According to the Star-Ledger, “A teacher with a median salary, $74,660, will earn about $95,000 at the end of the contract, a $20,870 increase over four years.”
That seems like a lot. But wait, there’s more. One of the most important ways that school districts have remained (mostly) solvent despite a tax increase cap of 2 percent (there are exceptions for a few things, like increases in enrollment) is through legislation called Chapter 78, part of the 2011 pension and health benefits reform law. It’s a progressive law, meaning the more you earn in salary, the more you pay in premiums. Depending on what health plan you choose, an employee’s contribution ranges from 3 percent of the premium to 35 percent of the premium. The amount you pay can’t be less than 1.5 percent of your base salary.
This healthcare premium contribution plan is now well-baked into district budgets, although Chapter 78 sunsets after a four-year phase-in. The New Jersey School Boards Association counsels boards, in the interest of maintaining district solvency, to “carefully consider the long term implications of moving away from the cost structure dictated by Chapter 78.”
The Jersey City School Board moved away from the cost structure dictated by Chapter 78. As the largest NJEA local in the state (Newark is part of AFT), this contract sets a precedent for all other NJEA locals.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, who led the Legislature in passing the reform bill, “blasted the terms of the deal,” according to the Star-Ledger.
“The agreement is a giveaway to the local NJEA, and the consequences for the students, taxpayers and teachers of Jersey City will be harsh and they will be real,” Sweeney said. “The givebacks will take money out of the classrooms, force teacher layoffs and make the schools budget problems worse.”
And the paper also quoted Matt: “We are stuck with these hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts that we have to pay,” Schapiro said. “We are voting on this without even talking about it.”
Matt told me on Friday, “this contract is absolutely regressive [compared to the progressive nature of Chapter 78 — the more you make the more you pay] because its effect is to relieve those at the top and burden those at the bottom.”
But wait, there’s more. On Monday the Jersey City Board filed a lawsuit against the state because it has a $120 million deficit. The lawsuit is supported by JCEA. According to the blog New Jersey Education Aid, the data was compiled by the Education Law Center. Before the Board filed the lawsuit it hired a firm to do a legal analysis. (See here.) The analysis concludes that the Board will lose the lawsuit. The astute blogger cited earlier agrees.
Because Jersey City pays far below its fair share due to its (obsolete) Abbott status and PILOT scams. As NJ Ed Aid says, the city’s school tax rate for 2018-2019 was only .4 percent, just 29 percent of its Local Fair Share. “Jersey City’s excess aid is the ninth highest in dollars per student, $5,716 per student. That’s more than the total aid of its impoverished neighbors Guttenberg and Fairview get total.”
Matt told me the Board got rid of its most recent Fiscal Monitor and the new one, appointed by the State, started Monday. Who knows — maybe the new Monitor didn’t know the Board would be approving a fiscally irresponsible contract that will set a terrible precedent throughout the state.
Matt is clear about this: The winners, he told me, are the teachers at the top of the salary guide — those who make the most money who would have to pay more in healthcare premiums under the old contract — and the leadership of JCEA. “
“The losers,” he said, “are everyone else.”