Collingswood School District, Teachers Take Contract Negotiations to Mediation

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The current contract governing the district teachers union expires June 30. The two sides will not meet again until August 14. Here’s what we know about the discussion between them.

By Matt Skoufalos | June 14, 2024

Collingswood High School. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Despite five months of negotiations, Collingswood Schools have been unable to hammer out a new contract with the Collingswood Education Association (CEA), the union representing its teachers and support staff.

The next time the two sides meet, August 14, that conversation will be led by a mediator.

In a letter to district families on Friday, the Collingswood Board of Education (BOE) said its negotiations committee has met with CEA monthly from February to June 2024.

At their May 6 meeting, CEA “unilaterally declared an impasse,” and “subsequently filed a request for mediation with the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC),” the school board wrote.

The implication of the letter seems to be that the two sides aren’t close on financial terms of the contract.

“The Board’s Negotiations Committee believes that our offers made during negotiations have been fair and made in good faith,” the letter reads.

“While the CEA has rejected our offers, we would be unable to meet demands for salary increases significantly higher than county average because doing so would necessarily lead to additional layoffs and cuts in programming starting in the upcoming 2024-25 school year.”

Collingswood BOE President Regan Kaiden said the district is still focused on settling a fair contract with its teachers union that will allow Collingswood to retain and recruit teachers.

In the past year, the board has settled collective bargaining agreements with the unions for the district principals and administrators, buildings and grounds staff, and the Oaklyn Education Association “without issue,” Kaiden said.

The current CEA contract expires at the end of June, but its terms remain in effect until a new contract is ratified. The principal hurdle both sides must overcome is the stringency of the local budget, which is constrained by the 2-percent state property tax cap established in 2010.

Collingswood BOE President Regan Kaiden (right), Business Administrator Bethann Coleman (center) and Superintendent Fred McDowell. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

“All bargaining contracts often come down to the financial piece of it all,” Kaiden said.

“It’s unfortunate,” she said. “We were not hoping to be in that space at all.”

Kaiden also said that the negotiations committee disagreed that talks had stalled to the point of needing outside help to resolve.

“We did not believe we were at an impasse, and didn’t call for a mediator,” she said.

“We believe we were negotiating in good faith.”

Kaiden also said the district has “been as transparent as we possibly could be about our financial situation,” and has made “the most fair offer we can within the constraints we have to work with.”

Collingswood Superintendent of Schools Fred McDowell echoed her remarks, adding, “the negotiation can only move forward if folks are clear about the financial component.

 

“We can negotiate conditions, language, and spirit of the language,” McDowell said. “If there’s not an understanding of the resources available, you don’t have a negotiation.

“Our books are public,” he continued. “We’ve made no secret that we have a structural budget gap. We’ve delayed the fiscal cliff by three years. The finances are the finances.”

On the one hand, the superintendent said, the district is besieged by inflationary costs that have added an extra $4 million in need to a school budget that could only offset $1.2 million of them. On the other, the 2-percent cap hampers Collingswood’s ability to pay more than it already is.

“There has been no mismanagement of resources,” McDowell said. “We are unable to go after the $5.5 million that the state says we should be able to levy.”

(See this 2021 explainer from NJ Education Report for more detail about the adequacy budget calculations that determine districts’ local fair share of school funding.)

To offset some of that $2.8-million shortfall, the district was forced to make cuts. In total, Collingswood Schools will lose 21 positions, 15 of which are attributable to a reduction in force (RIF), more commonly described as layoffs.

Collingswood Education Association signs at the May 13, 2024 meeting of the local school board. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Twelve of those are teachers: four in the middle school, three in the high school, and five elementary-school learning acceleration specialists.

The other three are administrators.

Collingswood also shed four of seven elementary-level multi-tiered student support (MTSS) coaches who had been paid from COVID grant funding that had expired.

The district also declined to refill two more positions — those of a nurse and phys ed teacher —that were vacated due to retirement. McDowell does believe that the district will be able to restore “at least a half dozen, maybe more” positions by the beginning of the next school year.

“This is not where we want to be,” McDowell said. “At no point did we want to lose any of our faculty and staff. We had significant challenges last year; reductions last year came through retirements, death, and resignation.

“I would ask for people to partner with us,” he said. “We can argue the solutions. We can’t argue the basic facts and mathematics.”

CEA President Robin Hogan, a fifth-grade teacher at Thomas Sharp Elementary School, said that the union is continuing to advocate for its staff and students throughout the negotiations.

CEA represents some 275 employees, including teachers, classroom aides, child study team members, administrative assistants, and instructional aides employed by Collingswood Schools.

At the May 13 meeting of the Collingswood Board of Education — a week after CEA had said negotiations were at an impasse and needed mediation — union members turned up in numbers, hoisting handmade signs, coordinated in their dress, to advocate for their peers who were facing layoffs.

In the weeks since, “CEA has been engaged in several advocacy activities, including Walking in Unity (in which teachers and staff walk into their buildings together in the morning) and wearing CEA shirts,” Hogan wrote in an e-mail Friday.

“We are engaged in these activities to increase awareness in the community that, as of June 30, 2024, our contract with the board expires,” she continued.

“In addition, the CEA has reached an impasse with the board, and we will begin working with a mediator in August. Our goal is to settle a fair contract that will allow Collingswood to attract and retain teachers and staff.”

Hogan declined to elaborate on any of the issues that have stalled the negotiations.

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