Letter to the Editor: 'Everybody Lost' During Oceanport Teachers' Contract Negotiations
Fair to question integrity of the process, BOE candidate says
To the Editor:
The net result of the Oceanport Board of Education’s approval of a tentative agreement with the Oceanport Education Association on Aug. 16, 2012, was that everybody — the teachers, students, administration, board and taxpayers — lost.
Insofar as only the Board members and the teachers’ union’s negotiating committee will know what the terms of the tentative agreement are until the final contract is crafted and ratified by the BOE and the OEA, nobody can be sure about the financial ramifications of the contract at this time. But that isn’t why everybody lost.
Rather, everybody lost because of the Oceanport Board of Education’s lack of transparency with the general public. Everybody lost because of the Oceanport Board of Education’s lack of transparency amongst themselves. Everybody lost because the Oceanport Board of Education failed to adhere to its own policies as it negotiated this contract. Everybody lost because the Board of Education allowed its dysfunctional operations and internal squabbles to taint these negotiations. Everybody lost because fully ONE THIRD of the members of the Oceanport Board of Education were forced to vote against the tentative agreement. Not because they didn’t think it was a fair agreement, but because they believed that they had not been provided with adequate information by the administration and their fellow board members to justify voting in favor of the agreement.
In short, the negotiating process had been called into question. If one looks to the oft-cited case Goose v. Gander, I am certain that those who dismissed the primary importance of a pristine and open process at last week’s meeting would have voiced a contrary position if they were of the belief that the process was skewed against their best interests.
The lack of available information seems to be a result of a flaw which was custom-designed into the negotiating process to block out potential objections or concerns by board members not on the negotiating committee.
Whether it was the fact that the tentative agreement was signed on May 8, 2012, by the Board’s negotiating committee without first having the financial terms vetted by the finance committee — an analysis that wasn’t performed until mid-August — or the fact that three of the board members publicly claim that they were not kept abreast of negotiations by the negotiating committee, or the fact that confidential information may have been provided to the OEA by a member of the administration during the negotiations, or the fact that information provided to the negotiating committee by a non-committee member was not shared with the committee or any other board members, or the fact that Board members almost came to blows at one recent meeting, the Oceanport Board of Education’s handling of these negotiations undermined the trust that all parties, especially the taxpayer, must have in the negotiation process.
If the public doesn’t trust that the process is fair, then any negotiated agreement, no matter how objectively fair and equitable it may be, is going to be looked at with a suspicious eye by the general public. And, in that case, everybody loses. Sadly, once the public loses faith in the process, it is almost impossible to restore.
While I understand the teachers’ frustration at the repeated delays on the part of the Oceanport Board of Education with respect to its consideration of the tentative agreement, and while I empathize with the passion exhibited by those who spoke at the meeting demanding that the Board approve the contract notwithstanding the concerns expressed by three of the nine members of the board, I am very troubled by the fact that the process underlying the negotiations can now be questioned.
Over the past year, moreover, there have been real and valid questions raised about the Oceanport Board of Education’s handing of the administrators’ contract (the meeting at which the contract was approved was moved to a new date without the proper, statutorily mandated notice to the public), the Business Administrator’s contract (an incorrect percentage raise set forth in the resolution) and the Superintendent’s contract (alleged lack of a public hearing regarding changes in the terms of the existing contract). The Board’s inability to manage its affairs properly cannot be allowed to continue.
Teachers are like free agent ballplayers whose contracts are up for negotiation every three years. Unlike professional ballplayers, however, teachers are under-appreciated and their services are tremendously undervalued. Each time a contract is up for renegotiation, a teachers’ union should try to extract every last dime from a Board of Education.
A Board of Education, on the other hand, is charged with the duty of ensuring that the taxpayers’ dollars are spent wisely while, at the same time, providing our children with a quality education. If the negotiations are conducted fairly and properly by both parties and the proper processes are observed, then no one can question the integrity of the negotiations and, by extension, the final contract.
At the conclusion of the negotiations, taxpayers and teachers can (and will), of course, be free to complain that the TERMS of the contract are unfair to one side or the other, but that is to be expected. What must be avoided at all costs, however, is allowing interested parties to the contract to have doubts about whether the underlying negotiations were conducted fairly. For, much like the clean baseball player whose performance on the field is now tainted by questions about whether or not he is using performance enhancing drugs, a lack of faith in the underlying contract negotiation process leads to suspicion about the final product between the teachers’ union and the Board.
Oceanport’s teachers and taxpayers deserve better than that.