At last month’s Board of Education meeting, while high school parents and school board members offered rebuke after stinging rebuke to , FLEA president Gene Kuffel sat quietly alone toward the back of the room and took it.
The tables were turned Thursday when a sea of Fair Lawn teachers fed-up with contract negotiations descended on Edison School and forced a move of the Board of Education meeting from Room 19 to the school's gymnasium to accommodate the crowd.
Without enough chairs to seat the almost 200 people who came out Thursday, dozens sat on the floor or stood around the gym’s perimeter.
This time, Kuffel sat in the front row, surrounded by colleagues and eager to speak for them.
When the floor opened for public comment, Kuffel read a prepared speech castigating the Board of Education for the lack of progress being made on contract negotiations and for previously questioning the teachers’ dedication to their students. The speech, which lasted almost 10 minutes, was repeatedly interrupted by loud standing applause by the teachers in attendance.
“We hear you, our Board of Education, say how you have been treated unfairly by the governor over the past two years,” Kuffel said during his speech, referring to deep state education cuts, “yet it’s your actions to prolong negotiations that speak even louder than the governor’s words.”
“At last month’s Board of Education meeting, you said you were appalled by your teachers for fulfilling their expired contractual obligation,” he continued. “I don’t quite understand the concept behind this and why you were so upset. If I were to hire a company to install a carpet, should I be upset that they don’t paint the walls? No. You should be appalled, but with yourselves for prolonging negotiations.”
Kuffel then got down to the apparent sticking point in negotiations, health care premiums. He said that FLEA had offered an insurance plan that would save more than $1 million each year in premiums, but which had been refused by the Board.
“You continue to push a health insurance plan that is an unnecessary financial burden to the taxpayers and teachers,” Kuffel said. “In most cases as a result of your insurance proposal, teachers will never make more money than they did last year. Ever.”
Kuffel then called out board president Michael Rosenberg directly.
“I am ashamed of public school teachers in other districts who have such blatant disregard and disrespect for their colleagues here in Fair Lawn,” Kuffel said of Rosenberg, who teaches in the Hillsdale School District. “It is unforgivable to have a board president say that he doesn’t respect their teachers, which is what you said, Mr. Rosenberg, at last month’s Board of Education meeting.
“Before you say something like that,” Kuffel continued, “please remember that these teachers who you say you don’t respect, produce a 99 percent success rate of Fair Lawn students who go on to attend post-secondary education at colleges, universities, trade schools and the military. Remember that our high school AP success rate exceeds that of New Jersey, which has the highest scores in the nation.”
Kuffel concluded by stating that he had a clear conscience and wanted nothing more than a fair contract for Fair Lawn teachers.
“As a math teacher, my vocation tells me that numbers don’t lie,” he said in closing. “The Fair Lawn Education Association is trying to save you more than $1 million in annual health insurance premiums and we’re being targeted as the bad guy? The numbers don’t add up.”
Board President Rosenberg clarified the comments he made about Fair Lawn teachers last month, and explained that they had been taken out of context.
“My comments last month were about high school recommendations that the Fair Lawn Education Association decided they weren’t going to do,” Rosenberg said. “There were parents in the audience that asked questions about it and unfortunately, yes, that affects every one of us. That affects everybody in Fair Lawn if the Fair Lawn Education Association is not willing to do those recommendations, because it affects our students getting into colleges.”
Rosenberg said he had never otherwise spoken negatively about any of the work that Fair Lawn teachers do.
“As a matter of fact, I go out of my way, as the record has proven, to say what wonderful things Fair Lawn teachers do and accomplish every day,” he said. “And you do. The Fair Lawn teachers are the best, I think. The best in the county, the best in the state, and I really hope that we can come to an agreement soon.”
No sort of agreement appeared close last night.
Eugene Banta, lead negotiator for the Board of Ed, said they disagree with the extent of savings the teacher’s proposed plan offers.
“We don’t agree with the numbers,” Banta said of the $1 million savings figured touted by Kuffel. “It’s as simple as that.”
Banta said the Board would meet next month with a fact finder on Nov. 30, and also with their insurance professionals, for the fourth time.
One resident and retired educator, Martin Lasus, who spoke publicly on behalf of the teachers, wondered why negotiations were moving so slowly.
“Did it take a formal meeting for you (Banta) to tell him (Kuffel) that his numbers don’t jibe? Couldn’t you sit down with him and show him how you prove his numbers wrong?” Lasus asked Banta. “This doesn’t make sense why it’s taking so long to work this out.”
Fair Lawn teachers have been working under an expired contract since June 30, 2010.
Here is the full transcript of Gene Kuffel's speech to the Board of Education:
"Teaching is both a vocation and avocation. For those of us who actually teach, the challenges and joys of being a teacher is one we eagerly accept with dignity, pride and dedication. As teachers, we have earned the proper degree, certification, credentials and take additional training needed to educate a classroom of students.
As an avocation, we are called to teach from the depths of our souls in an effort to give our youth the skills needed to be independent thinkers, to handle with confidence life’s challenges and joys, and the character to graciously accept life’s rewards.
Not everyone can be a teacher and not everyone is good enough to be a Fair Lawn teacher. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel internationally where I am honored to say that I am a teacher. You see in another country, I’m looked upon and treated with the utmost respect because I’m a teacher. Something I’m unlikely to find in my own backyard or even a Board of Education meeting.
Yet teaching is also a vocation. It’s a means of financial support to provide for ourselves and our families. We simply ask to be among the middle class.
Unfortunately, our governor and some state lawmakers have decided to blame the state’s middle class workers for New Jersey’s financial problems. I get that teachers, police officers and paid firefighters are easy targets to pinpoint the blame and there are a lot of uninformed individuals out there who believe this and feed both into and off of this tactical approach.
But we aren’t the problem. We never were the problem. I guess the governor had to blame someone other than his wife for the state’s financial woes. After all, she’s one of the Wall Street investment brokers who created our financial crisis while making over a half a million dollars a year working part time, and that doesn’t include her bonuses.
What’s worse than the governor’s words over the past two years, are the actions by those who are eager to jump on the Chris Christie bandwagon. We hear you, our Board of Education, say how you have been treated unfairly by the governor over the past two years, yet it’s your actions to prolong negotiations that speak even louder than the governor’s words.
At last month’s Board of Education meeting, you said you were appalled by your teachers for fulfilling their expired contractual obligation. I don’t quite understand the concept behind this and why you were so upset.
If I were to hire a company to install a carpet, should I be upset that they don’t pain the walls? No. You should be appalled, but with yourselves for prolonging negotiations. You have used your teachers as pawns. Worse than that, you continue to use their children as pawns and this is not cute.
The Fair Lawn Education Association has offered an insurance plan that provides more than $1 million in annual insurance premium savings. Numbers don’t lie. So far you have refused to accept this offer.
Instead you continue to push a health insurance plan that is an unnecessary financial burden to the taxpayers and teachers. In most cases as a result of your insurance proposal, teachers will never make more money than they did last year. Ever.
Anyone with foresight should be able to see that the future of education is in grave danger. Who will we get to teach our students if those charged with their education can’t ever get a financial footing to provide for themselves, afford to have a family or even fulfill the dream of being a homeowner?
This brings most of our members to tears. Yet you are still asking taxpayers and teachers to pay more in annual insurance premiums to the same insurance plan, and those are the words from your insurance broker, that they are the same plan.
According to my calculations, some of our teachers could easily be paying upwards of $10,000 extra in health insurance contributions in the next four years for your proposed health insurance plan over our proposal.
If anyone should be appalled it should be the taxpayers and teaching staff who aren’t provided with having an affordable insurance plan.
Our ad in the Community News last week speaks for itself. At last month’s Board of Education meeting, a board member asked how we can sleep at night. While I greatly appreciate your concern, but the truth be told, it’s not easy to sleep at night.
It’s sometimes difficult for Fair Lawn teachers to sleep as they worry about how they’ll pay the mortgage, utility and food since they may never make more than they did last year. Our teachers have difficulty sleeping as they worry whether or not the copy machine will be working in the morning so students have the resources (inaudible due to loud applause).
Or how they’ll pay for the copies they had to make at Staples because the copiers didn’t work (Applause).
And they also lose sleep wondering how they’ll effectively teach curriculum without having the necessary computer programs installed two months into the school year.
Teachers in Fair Lawn are justifiably afraid they are going to be required to once again pay for ancillary benefits again. Thus, difficulty sleeping.
Teachers may not be sleeping because they fear their student learning is impacted by the loss of librarians in the elementary schools (Applause).
Not to mention the reduction of elementary art and music programs (Applause).
And teachers may not be sleeping at night because they’re too busy planning lessons derived from increased curriculum demands that cannot be done in the course of two hours of planning per week (Applause).
And let’s not forget those teachers who are not sleeping at night because they spend upwards of two to five hours writing each college recommendation letter for students (Applause).
In recent years, one teacher spent more than 100 hours writing college recommendations. That equates to two-and-a-half 40-hour work weeks.
I am a teacher. I am also a member of NJEA. I am ashamed. I am ashamed of public school teachers in other districts who have such blatant disregard and disrespect for their colleagues here in Fair Lawn. It is unforgivable to have a board president say that he doesn’t respect their teachers, which is what you said Mr. Rosenberg at last month’s Board of Education meeting. (Long applause and cheering).
Before you say something like that, please remember that these teachers who you say you don’t respect, produce a 99 percent success rate of Fair Lawn students who go on to attend post-secondary education at colleges, universities, trade schools and the military. Remember that our high school AP success rate exceeds that of New Jersey, which has the highest scores in the nation.
And remember, we are the ones who educate your children. I have a clear conscience because I know I honestly and honorably advocate for nothing more than a fair contract for our members and still try to save your taxpayers money. I am one of the priceless professionals offering millions in savings.
To the parents and taxpayers of Fair Lawn, I started out by saying that teaching is both a vocation and an avocation. I love what I do educating your children to achieve academic, social and emotional excellence. This is my avocation. As a math teacher, my vocation tells me that numbers don’t lie. The Fair Lawn Education Association is trying to save you more than $1 million in annual health insurance premiums and we’re being targeted as the bad guy? The numbers don’t add up. (Loud applause and cheering).