NJ Teachers Not Keen on Christie's Wage Freeze Plan

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.

What's a governor feeling the heat for school budget cuts to do? Find a quick freeze if you're Chris Christie of New Jersey.

The governor has promised to give money to school districts that work out a one year wage freeze with their teachers.

"I'm definitely against it," said history teacher Danielle Wood, whose state employee husband is grappling with budget reductions at his own workplace as well.

Christie's offer to districts comes after months of criticizing the teachers' union for refusing to sacrifice benefits amid the biggest per-person state deficit in the country. 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.

"It won't fly and first thing it's against the collective bargaining agreement," said John Coppola, who heads the Bergen County Education Association representing 19,000 school employees.

But the offer won't cost the state any more money. The Republican governor 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.

"It sounds enticing, getting some money back, but a big piece of that decision making rests with the teachers," said John Lorenz, principal of Ridgewood High School. Lorenz says he thinks it unlikely teachers will go for the Governor's plan.

However, teachers in several districts, including in West Essex, Boonton, Montclair and Metuchen, have already 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. There is a projected deficit of $11-billion dollars for the fiscal year that begins July 2010.

Under the proposed budget, every district would get less from the state for the coming school year than it does now. Parents worried about quality in schools don't quite know what to make of the teacher pay freeze idea. 

"A new teacher with no tenure should still be able to earn a living," said one mom picking up her high school student.

"We have a budget deficit to fill and we have a tighter budget at home now too," said another parent.

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.

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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