Dispute Between Highland Park Board of Ed and Teacher Union Heats Up

HIGHLAND PARK, NJ—The Highland Park Board of Education (BOE) and the district's union are gearing up for a big day on Monday.

During the day, the BOE and the Highland Park Education Association (HPEA) will participate in a state mediation session, the third so far in their year-long contract dispute.

State-led mediations began in the Spring of 2013 and have so far been unsuccessful.  The conflict stems from unsuccessful negotiations between the Board and the teacher’s union regarding a proposed increase in instructional time.

Then, at 5:30pm on Monday, the board will hold a special meeting at Bartle School to discuss the future of embattled superintendent Timothy Capone.

NJ.com's Brian Amaral reported that Capone will be the subject of the special meeting, which officials said was to discuss a "confidential personnel issue"

As we reported in December, the Board went along with Capone's controversial plan to eliminate several positions, including those held by union leaders, in the middle of the school year.

These sudden layoffs also included Kathy Ketofsky, a counselor specially appointed to work with students struggling with depression and substance abuse

Unable to agree upon a salary raise to support more time spent teaching, Highland Park teachers have been working without a contract since July 1, 2013.

"It's never good to enter a new year without a contract.  It's a great distraction from the important work we do," said Kim Crane, who leads the HPEA.

Crane said that talented teachers are "leaving the district in droves," at least partly because of the uncertainty over the contract negotiations.

"We've lost almost 40 employees this year and I've learned of several more.  If it continues, I'm not sure who is going to want to teach here."

A press release issued by the HPEA explains that “six administrative personnel have also announced their retirement or resignation, including a majority of the building principals.”

The BOE's contract proposal would alter the structure of the teacher’s schedule, which is a combination of instructional time and “prep time.”

The allotment for lesson planning, parent communication, and other activities that support learning would be decreased by the proposed change and would mandate more time spent directly with students.

Teachers say that, under the board's proposal, they could be asked to teach an additional class for no extra pay.

Crane told New Brunswick Today that this requested increase is “unacceptable and is above the average of other schools in the county. The proposed salary increase to go along with it is unreasonable.”

The HPEA feels that more time allocated to instruction with minimal salary increases would affect the amount of time teachers can spend on supplementary activities, like writing recommendation letters for student’s college applications or corresponding with parents.

They maintain that the change would impact the overall classroom experience and ultimately, the education of Highland Park’s children.

Adam Sherman, Chairperson of the Negotiations Committee for the Board, issued a statement to New Brunswick Today: “This impasse has nothing to do with a lack of support for the staff, and everything to do with our legal obligation to balance the competing needs of the students, the community, and the staff in a manner that gives the educators the best chance of improving our educational programs and outcomes.”

“We are seeking an equitable agreement that will offer our staff some relief and some stability. This means a reasonable amount of instructional time and an acceptable raise.”

If this mediation proves to be unsuccessful, Crane is afraid of the impact the school district could feel.

“If this is not settled, we fear more education professionals will be leaving the district. We have an amazingly invested and dedicated staff. We feel like a family and as teachers leave our schools, our family is being torn apart.”

The HPEA also noted that declined teacher morale directly affects the students.

“We work as a team to ensure that we go above and beyond the expectations in our contract. When the students know our teachers are looking elsewhere for work, that instability affects the consistency and delivery of our education.”

Still, Sherman defended the offer the BOE has put to the union.

“The Board’s proposed salary increases, which are at or above most agreements that have been recently reached, are consistent with its desire to re-structure the secondary teachers’ workday to permit smaller class sizes and to increase course offerings for our students.”

An unfair labor practice lawsuit filed on behalf of the association and its terminated members is also pending resolution.