The New Jersey Supreme Court this week ruled in favor of the local board of education in a case challenging the negotiability of “Chapter 78” health benefit contributions. NJSBA appeared as amicus in the case, arguing in support of the Ridgefield Park Board of Education.

In the Matter of Ridgefield Park Board of Education involved the question of whether health benefit contributions under the district’s 2014 -2018 collective bargaining agreement could be subject to negotiation or if Chapter 78—the 2011 law requiring public employees to pay a certain percentage of their premiums—prevailed. That law, in effect when the district entered the collective bargaining agreement, has since sunset.

“We are gratified that the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the position of the board and the NJSBA that the Chapter 78 legislation preempted any collective bargaining agreement on employee health care contributions that began prior to the sunset of Chapter 78,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA executive director. “We believe that the decision will benefit other New Jersey school districts.”

NJSBA filed amicus curiae briefs at both the Appellate Division and the N.J. Supreme court levels in support of the Ridgefield Park board.

Background The Ridgefield Park board and the Ridgefield Park Education Association executed a four -year collective bargaining agreement in 2014.  The contract had a provision that employees contribute to health benefits at either 1.5% of salary or the minimum required by law.

In the first year of the contract, the Ridgefield Park Education Association members contributed at the “Tier 4” level required by Chapter 78.  During the second year of the contract, however, a dispute arose regarding the amount employees should contribute—the negotiated level, i.e., 1.5% of their base salary, or the higher Tier 4 amount designated in Chapter 78.

Following a 2016 decision by the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) involving the Clementon Board of Education, the Ridgefield Park employees’ contributions were increased to the Tier 4 level. The board and the NJSBA argued that the earliest the employee contributions became a negotiable topic was on July 1, 2018.

PERC upheld the action of the Ridgefield Park Board in 2017, however an Appellate Court ruled against the board in 2019.

In its Aug. 17 decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the board’s interpretation of N.J.S.A. 18A:16-7.2. It stated that while the Legislature did not “expressly discuss this scenario,” the court agreed that the board’s interpretation was more consistent with the language and spirit of Chapter 78  as a “long-term solution” to the health care fiscal crisis. Additionally, the court agreed that the district’s plain language interpretation would not bring about an “absurd result” as alleged by the Appellate Division and the employee’s association.

NJSBA as Amicus NJSBA participates as amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” in cases that have an impact on school districts statewide. This NJSBA advocacy service helps shape legal decisions affecting public education in New Jersey. In the past two years, the Association has been involved as amicus in nearly two dozen cases before state and federal courts and administrative agencies.

Questions regarding the state Supreme Court’s Aug. 17 decision in the Ridgefield Park matter should be discussed with the district’s board attorney. Information is available from the NJSBA Legal & Labor Relations Services Department at (609) 278-5254.