As many of you know, the Mendham Borough Board of Education has been involved since last Winter in negotiations with the Mendham Borough Education Association (“MBEA”) over a new employment contract for our District’s teachers. When informal negotiations reached a stalemate, the Board and the MBEA proceeded to mediation, which also failed to produce an agreement. The parties are now involved in “fact-finding,” the next statutorily-mandated step in the process of reaching agreement, but success continues to elude us. There is a reason that this likely sounds familiar to you; the regional high school board and its teachers underwent a nearly identical process just last year.
The Board remains committed to achieving an agreement that rewards our teachers for the exemplary service that they provide to our children and to our community. The Board wants to give our teachers a raise in pay—they deserve it--but our ability to do so is severely constrained. As described in previous communications, increases in general operating costs and state-mandated expenditures constrain the Board’s ability to fund an increase. More significantly, dramatic increases in health insurance premiums in the state-sponsored plan in which our teacher are presently enrolled have made it impossible for the Board to afford both pay raises and continued enrollment in the same plan while maintaining our current program and remaining within the 2% cap on school tax levy increases. For that reason, the Board initially offered MBEA members a substantial pay raise (7.5% over a proposed three-year contract, which was subsequently raised by the Board to 8%) in exchange for their agreement to move to the same health insurance plan offered to our District administrators and staff. The MBEA refused to consider a change in health insurance plans, and instead proposed to make the existing plan more expensive to the Board by capping its members’ contributions. At mediation in August, the Board again proposed to raise pay (6.3% over a proposed three-year contract), in exchange for a move to a middle-ground, state-sponsored insurance plan that would produce some, but not as much, in premium savings. Again, the MBEA refused to even consider a change in health plans while demanding a 9.5% increase in compensation. As we explained at the time, that was well beyond what the Board could responsibly consider.
So now we are in the midst of the “fact-finding” process. At some point, a neutral fact finder paid by the Board and the MBEA will release a non-binding report suggesting a resolution. Regrettably, we are now nearly half way through the academic year and much of the savings we had hoped to achieve in health insurance costs has been spent with the MBEA still enrolled in the legacy plan. Add to that the fact that we now know that premiums in the state plan will increase starting in January (healthcare insurers price on a calendar year) at a rate even beyond that which was expected and budgeted (8.7% for family coverage vs. 7.6% budgeted), and it becomes clear that the Board’s options are diminishing. Nonetheless, there is some good news. The Board is exploring the possibility of achieving savings by moving from a state-sponsored to a private health insurance plan as some other local school districts have recently done. Our preliminary analysis indicates that such plans can provide comparable or even superior benefits to enrollees at significant discounts compared to the state plans. The Board raised that possible option at our first “fact-finding” session last month, and the MBEA has indicated a willingness to give it consideration. This is progress—slight but perhaps significant. While we don’t have as much money to offer as we did last Winter, the potential savings to be achieved could be used to provide the raise we want to give our teachers, reflecting the changed financial circumstances.
The Board is now in the process of obtaining price quotes from private insurers so that a specific proposal can be made to the MBEA in advance of our next scheduled session. The Board remains confident that in the intervening time, our teachers will continue to perform as required under the expired contract with the same enthusiasm and professionalism that they always have and that Mendham Borough rightfully expects. The Board wishes to make clear to the community that it does not seek to “win” in these negotiations in the sense that someone else must “lose.” Rather, it seeks to present the best and most competitive compensation package that it can to the MBEA while maintaining the curricular and extracurricular programs currently in place and within the funding presently available. A contract that achieves those objectives represents the scenario in which everyone “wins.”
Wishing you and your families a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous 2017,
The Mendham Borough Board of Education