Christie Offers Wage-Freeze Incentive for Schools

After months of criticizing the teachers' union for refusing to sacrifice benefits as the state grapples with the biggest per-person deficit in the country, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is now offering school districts an incentive to force the teachers' hand.

Christie told the The Associated Press in an interview that he will offer more state aid to all school districts whose teachers agree to a wage freeze for the 2011 fiscal year.

Christie said nearly one in 10 New Jerseyans are out of work, but teachers are getting up to 4 percent annual raises — far higher than the rate of inflation.

"I don't think it's wrong to say in these difficult times that they step up and make some sacrifice," Christie said. "We're not talking about forgoing raises forever. We're talking about forgoing raises for one year."

The offer won't cost the state any more money. The Republican is offering to give districts all the money the state would save on Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes as a result of the wage freezes.

School districts who get the additional aid could set it aside to offset steep cuts in school aid next year. Under Christie's proposed 2011 budget, school districts would lose state aid that equals up to 5 percent of their budgets. For many districts, that will mean layoffs and program reductions.

Already teachers in several districts, including in West Essex, Boonton, Montclair and Metuchen, have voluntarily offered to freeze wages.

Christie started off trying to balance his first budget since being elected in November with a $1 billion hole, the result of stimulus money that has run out.

Under the proposed budget, every district would get less from the state for the coming school year than it does now.

But if teachers agree to wage freezes, districts could see more than a 7 percent increase in aid. For example, a district that saves $1 million in salaries as a result of wage freezes would receive an extra $75,000 in state aid.

"Maybe that helps to fund another teacher position or two, or a sports program that they might otherwise had to cut," the governor said.

Shared sacrifice has been a theme for the governor since he took office two months ago and began proposing cuts. His proposed state budget has cuts in nearly every department of government to close a nearly $11 billion projected deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

From a political perspective, the incentive gives Christie the opportunity to point to teachers who refuse to wage freezes as the reason a school district is getting less state money than it could.

Christie's feud with the New Jersey Education Association is not new. It goes back to the gubernatorial campaign, when the union actively campaigned against him.

The NJEA has since started airing television commercials as part of a new campaign against the school cuts in which they accuse Christie of putting millionaires before the state's children.

Democratic legislative leaders have called on the Republican governor to reinstate a surcharge on people making more than $400,000 or allow cities to start charging local sales tax.

Christie has adamantly said he'll veto both, in keeping with his no-new-taxes campaign pledge.

"Gov. Christie is a very shrewd politician, and he's using crafty political tactics to impose his agenda on the state," NJEA President Barbara Keshishian said recently in a statement. "But when he turned his attack machine on teachers and school employees, he really stooped to a desperate new low, because our members are not the problem."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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