Camden teachers get 2 percent raises in new contract

 Camden Board of Education building. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

Camden Board of Education building. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

When the state-controlled Newark school district settled its teacher contract three years ago, a press conference was held to celebrate a new and innovative aspect of the deal: It included a provision for awarding bonuses to outstanding teachers.

In another state-run district, Paterson’s new teacher contract two years later earned its own plaudits, this time for a hard-fought deal that eliminated automatic pay raises. 

Yesterday, in the newest district added to the state’s rolls, Camden and its teachers union more quietly announced a tentative contract agreement that was markedly conventional in its bargaining give-and-take: it calls for a longer and more flexible schedule for the schools, while giving district employees a decent raise – and retroactive pay. It includes no pay based on performance and calls for no significant changes in the salary guides.

“The contract negotiated is a fair and equitable contract for both sides,” said Myron Plotkin, the 1,500-member union’s negotiator with the New Jersey Education Association. “While neither side got all that it wanted, both sides were successful in obtaining changes that were beneficial to its goals in the negotiations.”

Added Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard: “We’re very excited to have reached an agreement with the union. This new contract empowers teachers and our other employees with the support they need to help our students while also assuring our students benefit from increased learning time during the school day. Our agreement is a significant step forward for our schools and families.”

Achieving the deal was no small feat. The union went two years without a new contract, and the agreement for the two separate contracts – one covering 2013-15 and the other 2015-18 — was reached as the state-run district faces perilous fiscal times that last year saw more than 200 teachers and other staff laid off.

The final deal was hammered out after a 15-hour session last week, said the parties in their joint announcement. The rank-and-file union members approved it this weekend.

But as much as Gov. Chris Christie has played up the Camden takeover as one of his administration’s big education accomplishments, the teacher contract proved a far less eventful deal than what his administration reached in Newark and Paterson under his watch.

In Newark, the district agreed to the state’s first large-scale performance bonuses for teachers, along with a process for teachers to evaluate each other. That agreement is set to expire this summer, amid deep divisions between the district and the Newark Teachers Union over how well that agreement has been carried out — and there is no sign yet of the two sides even agreeing to begin contract talks.

In Paterson, the incentives in that district’s new contract were not explicit bonuses but instead doubled pay increases for teachers evaluated as “highly effective.” Even so, the contract was only narrowly approved by the union membership.

In Camden, while district and state officials confirmed there were no such pieces in the new contract, an apparent retreat for the administration, they also cited significant gains for both sides.

For the teachers, they will get a 2 percent raise – roughly matching the average raises in the state – and will also get retroactive pay for the years without a new contract, district officials said. Starting pay for teachers was set for $53,184 and tops out at $103,446, and community coordinators in schools also saw significant raises.

For the district, it was instructional time extended by two weeks, as well as more flexibility in scheduling to accommodate additional professional development and block schedules for students, officials said.

The Christie administration issued a statement praising the deal.

“This is another positive step for Camden,” said David Saenz, an education department spokesman. “We’re pleased that Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard and the Camden Education Association have reached an agreement.”

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NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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