A week after hundreds of teachers in the Toms River Regional school district spent days picketing outside the district’s central office on Hooper Avenue, hundreds more packed a school board meeting Wednesday night – then left.
What began as a packed board meeting at Toms River High School North ended with only about a dozen people remaining seated in the auditorium. The teachers, who are protesting a lack of a contract and what they view as unfair state policies on healthcare contributions, stayed to hear two of their fellow teachers recognized for obtaining grants for the district as well as an address from student representatives from each high school before leaving en masse.
Board member Benjamin Giovine, chairman of the district’s negotiating committee, said after the meeting that despite the impasse, “the lines of communications are open” between district officials and representatives from the Toms River Education Association, the union which represents more than 1,100 teachers. Toms River Regional is the state’s fifth-largest school district.
“We’re very optimistic about the meeting with the mediator,” said Giovine, referring to a mediation session planned for Jan. 15. “What I can say is that, on both sides, everyone is very involved and engaged in trying to get something figured out.”
“Selfishly, I hope everyone can get together and stop this,” said board member Christopher Raimann after the walkout. “Because I have kids and I hope everyone at this table, as well as the teachers, work a little bit better together.”
Giovine said at the Nov. 22 board meeting that the committee had offered a 9.4 percent raise over three years – two 3 percent raises followed by a 3.4 percent raise – but the union requested about $2 million in additional compensation.
None of the staff members spoke at the meeting, though past statements of Toms River Education Association members have primarily focused on the health and pension benefits contributions under a now-expired state law. The law, passed in 2011, required teachers to contribute between 4.5 percent and 35 percent of the cost of their health benefits, depending on salary and the type of plan chosen. Teachers have said with the contributions, they are earning less money than five years ago.
Since the law has sunset, contributions must now be negotiated, as they were before the reform measure was passed. In other local districts, including Brick and Lacey townships, benefits contributions were maintained at the same level the 2011 law prescribed and concessions were made on copayments.