Contract has yet to be reached between BOE and the MEA
By KRISTINA SCALA
The beginning of the school year is creeping up for parents, children and teachers, but a contract agreement has yet to be reached between the board of education and Moorestown Education Association.
A meeting is scheduled for Aug. 5 with a state-appointed mediator, said board member Kevin O’Sullivan, who sits on the negotiations committee. The MEA requested a mediator in the beginning of May. Two meetings were scheduled for that month, but were cancelled.
“Up until the last round of negotiations, the MEA and the board of education always reached a settlement before the start of school. It is, and always has been, our goal to reach a settlement before school starts. Hopefully, the Aug. 5 meeting will result in a settlement,” MEA president Lisa Trapani said.
O’Sullivan said the board and MEA are on opposite ends of the spectrum, and while a mediator will navigate between two different rooms to help “bring the two sides together,” the bottom line is the issues keeping the two sides apart are the cost of health care, salary and contract language.
“Health care is by far the central issue of this current negotiation,” he said.
The cost of health care is constantly increasing, and while the board recognized that factor, changing from a state plan to Aetna is saving the district more than $1 million.
According to O’Sullivan, teachers paid approximately 12 percent toward health-care costs, while the board paid 88 percent in 2013.
“Under the contract that expired June 30, the board of education takes seven times the risk of the employee. If health care goes up by $1 million per year, the employee pays $120,000 and the board of education pays $880,000,” he said.
Not all employees are paying the same percent toward health care. O’Sullivan said some are paying 3 percent of premiums. Others are paying more than 20 percent.
“Given the disparity in the percentage paid by an employee as opposed to the board of education, there is little incentive for employees to chose lower-priced plans,” he said.
“It is the more volatile part of the budget and keeps increasing exponentially. It’s such a large part of the budget that it ‘crowds out’ any other increase of investment opportunity,” he said.
When the 2013–2014 budget was passed in April, it showed a 1.61 percent increase, or $30.78 more in school taxes annually for the average assessed home. Under the state-mandated cap, teachers were concerned that the school board’s decision to not take advantage of raising taxes to 2 percent would affect the future generation of money and educational resources available from lack of funding.
If the board increased the taxes to cap, the actual budget increase would have been more than 4 percent, O’Sullivan said.
Although taxes were increased by 1.61 percent, the district increased its budget by 2.4 percent for the 2013–2014 school year because of “expected revenues from nontax sources” such as the agreement with Delanco and the state-mandated use of $700,000 in excess budget funds, he said.
According to O’Sullivan, what the MEA is looking for is an increase the board does not have in its budget.
“We could either raise taxes by 4 percent or more every year, which is highly unlikely, or cut $1.1 million out of the budget. This will happen every other year as health-care costs continue to consume a larger share of the budget,” he said.
If it came down to cutting from the budget, O’Sullivan said the cost of salaries and benefits would have to be reduced, which might result in outsourcing or layoffs.
In June, the board approved a three-year contract with ABM, a janitorial service company, outsourcing night custodial staff at William Allen Middle School.
Some parents and teachers were unhappy with the board’s decision, many saying safety issues and lack of proper upkeep are concerns.
Before the dispute over outsourcing WAMS night custodians arose, the district had already outsourced in areas that would not directly affect student learning. The school district outsources other services such as bus drivers, lunch staff and grounds personnel.
The district is attempting to save money in areas that would not greatly affect students, board president Don Mishler explained to The Sun in June.
Rumors were also spread regarding outsourcing of paraprofessionals, a possibility many did not take lightly.
There is more concern with the 2014–2015 school year.
According to O’Sullivan, the estimated payroll for next year is $40 million and health care is approximately $10 million. If 2 percent raises are given on top of existing raises, the district would spend $800,000. But if health care increases, there would be an increase in expenses, resulting in an increase of taxes more than the cap.
If insurance increases by the maximum negotiation rate, 16 percent, there would be a $1.4 million increase in expenses, or a 5.5 percent increase.
“The problem is we can only raise taxes 2 percent of our current tax levy of $54 million. That leaves us with a $1.1 million problem,” he said.
Coming up on an expired term and not seeking reelection, O’Sullivan said addressing the raising cost of health care in the current three-year contract is vital for the 2014–2015 school year, and a reasonable salary settlement would alleviate the issue.
“I want to leave them in good hands,” he said.