The New Jersey School Boards Association collects and maintains a database of teacher contract bargaining data, including settlement rates, board gains, salary guides, work time, insurance matters and more.

NJSBA urges school board negotiations committees to bargain with a primary focus on their board’s ability to pay, rather than relying mainly on comparative settlements in surrounding school districts. New Jersey is now in an age where school districts have experienced major fluctuations in state aid, among other economic challenges, therefore, the concept of a “going rate” should, and has, become less important to negotiators.

Nevertheless, comparative data should not be completely discounted. Board members, especially those on the negotiating team, should be knowledgeable about settlement data and current trends in contract negotiations. Comparative data can provide boards with a sense of what other districts are agreeing to. It can also provide board members with a sense of how competitive their district is in various areas, such as pay and work time, as well as the overall negotiations climate, before sitting down at the negotiating table.

Settlement Rates The results of our continuing surveys to the 235 New Jersey school districts with teachers’ contracts that expired June 30, 2021, with 90% of the districts responding at the time this article was written, has found that a collectively negotiated agreement has been reached in at least 55% of the districts, some of which are still pending ratification. The results of the recent inquiries to those school districts also indicated that 74% of the unsettled districts were still in active negotiations, and 26% were in the mediation or fact-finding process. A few districts whose teachers’ contract expired June 30, 2020, are still in negotiations for a successor agreement, several of which are at impasse. One district whose teachers’ contract expired in 2019 reported being in super-conciliation.

In addition, the number of settlements reached before school begins is higher than what was typical in most of the last decade. A look back into the last 10 years shows teachers’ contracts that were settled before September has run between 38%-47% from the years 2011-2018. Beginning in 2019, the majority of settlements (60%) were reached prior to September, which was before the COVID-19 pandemic began. However, 2020 by far had the highest percentage of districts that settled their successor contract prior to the school year starting, with 69% reaching a settlement before September. The trend is continuing into 2021, as a majority of the districts that entered negotiations for this year, and responded to our survey, have reached at least a tentative settlement.

It is important to note, due to COVID-19, many districts are still negotiating in a remote setting. Our recent survey indicated 62% of districts have reached their settlement using remote negotiations for most or all of their meetings, 28% held most or all of their meetings in-person, while the remaining districts utilized a combination of both.

For new teachers’ contracts that begin with the 2021-2022 cycle that have reached a settlement and reported it to NJSBA, the average increase — inclusive of increment — is 3.20% for 2021-2022. Twenty-five percent of those are one-year agreements with an average settlement rate that is approximately one-tenth of a percentage point lower than those with a longer contract term. The preliminary average increase for 2022-2023 is 3.17%, and 3.20% for 2023-2024. The average increases are up slightly from districts whose contracts began with the 2020-2021 cycle, with average increases of 3.08% for 2020-2021, 3.10% for 2021-2202, and 3.10% for 2022-2023.

Board Achievements In considering settlement rates, board members should also consider concessions from the teachers association achieved in the bargaining process, which can affect the effective cost of the settlement. For example, a district may have bargained for more student contact time, achieved a cap on tuition reimbursement, moved to a less expensive health insurance plan, eliminated a longevity provision, or obtained some other type of change that can help put those increases in the proper perspective.

NJSBA has determined through individual district surveys that 42% of the new teachers’ contracts that began with the 2021-2022 cycle have reported some type of concession from the association. One area boards of education have been successful in making inroads is more time for professional development — by utilizing existing prep time or adding additional time/days. Boards have also been successful in obtaining more flexibility in scheduling, adding more time to the workday, as well as additional meeting time.

Challenges Even though districts have seemingly worked through the challenges of negotiating remotely, as well as the other issues created by COVID-19, they are still faced with tackling the issue of rising health care premiums affecting both the boards’ and employees’ budgets. On July 1, 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law P.L. 2020, c. 44 (“Chapter 44”), which overhauled health benefits plans offered to school employees. However, concerns that the legislation would impact districts differently in the state, as some may experience savings while others could face a potential increase in their health care costs, turned out to be valid.

The recent survey asked respondents what was their most notable challenge in negotiations — several districts that have reached a settlement in the first half of the year noted Chapter 44 created some of those challenges. NJSBA, in hearing concerns from boards, sought amendments to the law when it became apparent it was not having the desired effect of reducing health care costs. On July 7, 2021, amendments to the 2020 law were signed by the governor and specifically require boards and unions to engage in negotiations to mitigate the impact of any financial losses incurred by the district. It also makes clear that boards and their unions will be able to collectively bargain changes to the design of their health care plans and/or employee contribution levels.

Not surprisingly, salary increases were also noted as a challenge during negotiations. State aid for fiscal year 2022 resulted in one-third of the districts statewide receiving less than the prior year. There was an average loss of 11.53%, with 28 districts losing 20% or more from the previous year. Additionally, approximately 30% of districts statewide have experienced back-to-back reductions, as they also received a reduced amount in fiscal year 2021 as well.

More detailed data is available on the NJSBA website where settlements and negotiations data is accessible to members (password required). For specific reports based upon your selected criteria (i.e. similar enrollment group), members may also contact Sandy Raup at (609) 278-5224.

Sandy Raup is an NJSBA lead coordinator, data.