New Jersey school officials should bow to teachers

The loss of 34 neighbors in the Sept. 11 attacks united 61,000 inhabitants of Middletown Township, N.J. Now, a school board’s greed and those same residents’ selfishness has torn the town apart and put 230 teachers in jail for the better part of three days.

“It’s become a war,” superintendent Jack DeTalvo said Thursday, his convenient wording disguising the war’s one-sidedness as the district stood watch while some teachers were arrested in front of their families and neighbors in the largest mass imprisonment of teachers since 1978. The teachers agreed to comply with a judge’s back-to-work order Saturday and will return to their classrooms without a contract, after the school board rejected two state mediators’ recommendations Saturday.

The district’s outrageous intransigence comes on the heels of its proposal to increase teacher health care premiums from $250 per person annually to up to $860 in the contract’s first year, followed by 7 percent increases in the next two years. This premium comes on top of the $1,400 deductible teachers already pay. When the union rejected the proposal and went on strike, the district requested the back-to-work order as well as an order for mass firings if teachers did not comply.

The board sought to cut $200,000 from the district’s $103 million budget, and the board’s lawyer, Malachi Kenney, said it rejected the mediators’ plan because it would only cut $59,000. Kenney said the board’s proposal would allow it to hire four new teachers.

What twisted accounting could weigh four new teachers against the 1,000 striking teachers who were praised just a few weeks ago by Middletown residents as models for students and who were also credited with helping the town’s children deal with the dozens of local casualties of the Sept. 11 attacks? An unfortunate confluence of Sept. 11, layoffs at the local Lucent Technologies plant and parents’ impatience at having to make other arrangements for their children have generated contempt for teachers even among those who supported them during their 1998 contract negotiations.

But layoffs and terrorists do not make the teachers’ demands any less reasonable. They do not lower teachers’ cost of living or ease the burden on teachers who routinely pay for classroom supplies and projects out of their own pockets. They most certainly do not change the fact that today’s teachers are expected to be all things to all students, and if those dedicated professionals would rather go to jail than endure higher health insurance costs, their heavy-handed administrators should reassess their budget priorities.

The union will return to the bargaining table under a new court-appointed mediator and a judge’s order that the two sides negotiate in good faith. The teachers who defended their principles with eloquent simplicity in court before being locked up with accused murderers and thieves no doubt understand what acting in good faith means. The school board should be taking notes – they could learn an important lesson about courage, dedication and old-fashioned schoolhouse Americanism.