Legislating in the Shadows

Coughlin

Soon after the nightmarish effects of the pandemic subside, school officials may ask themselves this question: Where is Chris Christie now that we need him?

The reference to the former governor may seem odd if not for the enactment during the past six months of three laws approved overwhelmingly by bipartisan majorities in both legislative houses and signed into law by Governor Phil Murphy. Both noteworthy and disturbing is that this took place during the current health emergency in a virtual law-making environment, where public and media attention has been focused on more immediate concerns such as whether schools will reopen, the kind and quality of instruction offered, and myriad health and safety issues potentially affecting  students and staff.

These three legislative initiatives, fair to say, were entirely geared to the interests of school employees and their unions.  In both the short- and long-term, they will dramatically alter the balance in the bargaining relationship between school boards and local unions and will impose even greater budgetary stress on local school districts and financial pain on the state’s taxpayers, when relief, more than ever before, is urgently needed.

The first law enacted in March soon after the pandemic closed schools statewide requires school boards to maintain salary levels and health and other benefits while the current health emergency is in effect. This past spring, school districts were obligated to continue to pay employees their full compensation package even though, in the case of some of them, their services may not have been needed. Think of bus drivers who no longer transported students, paraprofessionals whose students were being taught virtually, or custodians whose work places were now devoid of students.  In many districts, the situation will continue this fall.

The second law, a decades-long-term goal of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), now places substantial restrictions on the ability of school districts to subcontract certain personnel services unless certain procedural requirements and negotiations obligations are met. This will create conditions prohibiting school districts from saving critically needed funds to respond to fiscal emergences aggravated by an anticipated loss of state aid and unanticipated pandemic-related costs. It will also place added pressure on districts to have resource available to educate students in the face of an economic slowdown likely to last years.

The third statute allows all non-renewal decisions affecting non-certificated staff, including the aforementioned group, to be subject to binding arbitration, a costly, time-consuming process that further erodes the prerogatives of school officials to retain only the best suited employees. Ironically, this law now gives these workers greater employment rights than those rights which are granted to non-tenured teachers.

No other group of organized public employees during this troubling time has benefited from the legislature’s largess and preferred treatment as school employees. This is clear evidence of their statewide union’s power and the acquiesce of the legislators and governor to it, and the ineffectiveness of other lobbying groups that opposed these laws.

Making significant public policy questions decisions during a pandemic when school districts are facing critical financial and operational issues was ill-timed and misguided–a shoddy way of making law in a virtual environment where public input is largely lacking and media attention has been diverted to seemingly more pressing issues. Clearly, transparency, a word commonly part of today’s political lexicon, has not been a priority.

Before acting, the governor and legislature should have spent more taking into account the state’s post-pandemic education environment. They should have considered far more seriously the future impact of their recent actions on school district operations in the future.

It is indeed a sad commentary but no surprise that the legislative process has operated largely in the shadows during this difficult time, well out of public view and devoid of vigorous and vibrant debate as it made these dubious decisions.  This misbehavior leaves the unfavorable impression that state lawmakers have responded to special interest needs over the larger public interest.

While school employees continue to encounter serious challenges during the current pandemic, they should find solace in the fact that the state’s elected policy-makers, meanwhile, have more than adequately protected their employment interests. If only other workers—the unemployed and furloughed—had the opportunity to enjoy the same.

Dr. Marc Gaswirth is a retired assistant superintendent with the Marlboro Township Public Schools.

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