The Real Wasteful Spending In Montclair Schools? Tens of Thousands of Dollars to Subsidize Full Time President for the MEA

Like most everyone else in town, we were glad to see the budget debate wrap up with a minimal number of layoffs necessary. To our mind, the most unfortunate part of the debate was the level of misinformation and distraction that the MCAS / MEA crowd employed – openly lying about things like technology investments, legal spending, audits, consulting fees, central office staff size, etc., to try to attack the district. But on the upside, we’re hopeful that – after the amount of blatantly false claims and misinformation they put out there – folks will know that they simply can’t be trusted, aren’t responsible actors, and don’t have the best interests of our kids or schools in mind.

All that said, we were surprised that – given the level of heat over relatively small areas of spending – one area of spending never came up in the discussions: MEA union president Gayl Shepard’s salary, and the $239,700 that the MEA owes Montclair Public Schools.

The issue arose last fall, when we raised questions here about Shepard’s situation vis-a-vis the contract, and rumors about whether the MEA had actually paid the district.  The Montclair Times then followed our lead, and reported that the MEA had not made the payments necessary for Gayl Shepard’s salary to the district – about $79,000 owed each year:

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.”

since Shepard is a social worker and the median salary for a social worker in the district was $79,900, the negotiators of the 2012-2015 contract should have subtracted $239,700 from the sum the district paid to the MEA.

They didn’t.

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.”

As the story notes, this arrangement for a union president in a district like Montclair is very unusual. It’s unclear at this point how much – if anything – the MEA has paid back of the money it owes the district. So that would have been an easy place to find some cash quickly, though it would be a one-time thing. Certainly, it would have been enough money to cover the positions that were lost – and if the MEA was serious about protecting it’s members, it should have found a way to get the district the money it owed.

But this issue is more important as we move forward with the upcoming contract negotiations. Because the district pays Shepard’s full salary each year – $100,910 (likely not including benefits), according to our research – but is only reimbursed the average amount for her role by the union ($79,900), there’s a substantial gap – over $20,000 each year, which taxpayers are subsidizing the union’s operations with. And that doesn’t even begin to account for other costs, like pension benefits and health care. All told, we’re probably looking at $35,000 – $40,000, which would have been enough to save at least one paraprofessional position.

We raised questions at the time about the arrangement, since we’re not really clear what the need for a full-time union president in Montclair is. But moreover, when we wrote about this before, we noted that it was extremely unusual for a small local union like the MEA to have this kind of arrangement in their contract:

The 2010 Verona contract offers one year of unpaid leave for representatives of the NJEA or NEA:

The 2007 South Orange – Maplewood contract allows the equivalent of 3 days:

The 2007 Glen Ridge contract allows 1 day away from the classroom:

In fact, it’s such a crazy situation that the only other district we found with a comparable situation was the contract our very own Sean Spiller negotiated for himself in Wayne, allowing himself to play politics full-time instead of teaching (which apparently he wasn’t really doing very well anyway).

Suddenly, the fact that lots of other small items were being questioned in the budget by the BoSE – and Spiller in particular – while this one was ignored makes a lot more sense, and should add more fuel to the fire about Spiller’s problematic conflict of interest as an NJEA official serving in his current role.

We don’t have a problem with the union reimbursing the district for the position if their president isn’t teaching, but if that’s going to be the case, all of the costs the district incurs for that position ought to be covered – including the full salary, pension, and health care costs. Taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing the costs of this role, especially given the aggressive and hostile advocacy that the MEA has engaged in. It’s a shame this wasteful spending wasn’t raised in questioning during the BoSE meetings, but we’re hopeful that it’s an issue that will be dealt with soon, saving the district some much-needed cash.

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