Montclair Times Story on Union President Salary Raises A Host of Important Questions

We were headed out on vacation so we didn’t get a chance to write about this, but the Montclair Times wrote an important story a few weeks ago about an issue we’ve noted before: the school district’s agreement with the teacher union as part of the contract to pay the teacher union president’s salary.

As we’d heard from rumors, it turns out that the union hasn’t been chipping in like they were supposed to, and owes the district a fair share of money:

$239,700 is a lot of money to owe, and to overlook.

This sum was recently discovered to be owed to the Montclair School District by the Montclair Education Association, the union that represents most of the district’s employees. The debt dates back to the negotiations of the 2012-2015 contract between the district and the MEA and is the result of a longstanding informal payment procedure of which there is no written record.

The MEA – unlike the teachers’ unions in most nearby municipalities, with the exception of Wayne – has the option of buying the president’s time back from the district so that she or he may attend full time to union business. The president continues to draw his or her salary and benefits, but need not teach if the union pays the district “the median salary for the president’s employment group.”

As the article notes, the sum had previously been subtracted from the amount the district sent the union, and this time it wasn’t. The union apparently assumed that would happen, and either didn’t notice when it didn’t, or just didn’t notify the district (though it seems like most of us would notice if we had an extra $240,000 sitting around…). Basically, the union should (technically, legally) have been cutting the checks themselves, but wasn’t (again, because of the prior practice).

Despite the lack of apparent intent, we do think the size of the sum is notable for a few reasons, and raises additional questions about the union’s financial management:

1. What did the union do with all of this money? The article notes that there is now a payment plan in place to pay off the $239,700 that is owed, so apparently the union spent it. What did they spend it on?

2. As the article notes, this arrangement is fairly uncommon. It’s very interesting to us that the other district nearby with a similar arrangement is Wayne, where our very own Sean Spiller got his political start…

3. We don’t know how much MEA dues are each year (the NJEA’s are $817, but Montclair Education Association and NEA dues stack on top of that), but the state lists about 400 teachers teaching in Montclair schools (403). If you divide the cost of Shepard’s salary that the union is responsible for ($79,000) by 403, that’s $197.50 per teacher. It’s highly unlikely that the MEA’s share of dues is much more than that, which would mean that basically all of the money that union members pay in dues is going to pay her salary as president. Again, this is a highly unusual situation to have the entire salary being paid for, especially in a relatively small district like Montclair.

4. Which brings us to another question about the salary. As the article notes,

Fleischer came on in the summer of 2013. When he reviewed the district’s accounts, he saw that Shepard had continued to draw her salary of slightly over $100,000, but he was unable to find the yearly payments of $79,900 for the release of her time. –

There’s a substantial gap there, between the amount that the district (us, as taxpayers) is paying Shepard and the amount that we’re being reimbursed. It’s well over $20,000, and we have real questions as to why we’re subsidizing this role, rather than the MEA/NJEA paying for the full cost of the salary of their president, if they’re only going to do union work full time and not teach at all. That gap in salary, for instance, could help fund a teacher’s aide, or other significant classroom resources. Obviously this isn’t a criticism of Shepard herself – that’s just the way the contract is written. But – again – it’s a real question of whether it should be structured that way (and also, whether it makes sense for our district to have a full time union president in that way).

Anyway, we’re glad that the Montclair Times decided to take a look at this issue, and we’re hoping that folks in charge (namely, the school board) will take a look at some of these issues and consider whether the way we’re funding the position is truly worth the burden on taxpayers.


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