The Other Side of the Story In River EdgeJuly 26, 2023
Murphy Signs Bucco Bill Keeping Federal Aid in School Districts that Educate Military StudentsJuly 27, 2023
Dr. Marc Gaswirth, a retired public school administrator, has written extensively for more than 40 years about public sector bargaining and school human resources.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In September, public schools will reopen and school districts will face familiar challenges, including a persistent teacher and substitute shortage. However, a new challenge is likely to be added—a sharp rise in staff absenteeism by way of a problematic law you passed and Governor Phil Murphy signed into law in late June.
The Law: What It Does
Hopefully you’ll recall that the law has four key components:
- Enables school employees to use their allowance of at least paid ten sick days annually for more than just their own illness or injury. Paid sick leave has now been extended to a wide range of personal reasons that would otherwise be subject to the local negotiations process such as:
- illness in the immediate family involving the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a physical or mental illness, injury, or other health reason;
- circumstances related to domestic or sexual violence;
- attendance at school-related conferences, meetings, functions or other events of the employee’s child;
- caring for the school employee’s child should the child’s school be closed; and
- extended bereavement leave for a death in the immediate family.
- Preserves the practice of school employees accumulating unused sick days from one year to the next without limit;
- Retains all other paid and unpaid leave benefits in existing labor contracts or in law; and,
- Limits the rights of school districts to monitor the possible abuse of these days.
On its face, the law appears designed to ease the personal lives and protect the financial well-being of school employees. On closer inspection, however, it will leave many classrooms without instructors and other staff, in some cases for extended periods; require the employment of many more substitutes; and drain already stressed school budgets, limiting resources available to provide remedial services to many students in need.
Your putative primary political sponsor, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), convinced you that several hundred thousand public school employees and their families, after enduring serious hardships in recent years largely stemming from the Covid pandemic, deserved to be treated with appreciation and “humanity.” While the state’s most powerful state union has done its job in lobbying for this law, you have failed at yours. Permit me to explain!
Distorted and Misplaced Arguments
To start with, your action was singularly focused not on school employees per se but on a special interest group. The pandemic affected wide swaths of the state’s population, not just educators but many essential workers required to have frequent contact with the public. These included valiant and irreplaceable hospital and medical staff and first responders, home care aides, transportation employees, supermarket workers, food preparers and delivery drivers, who receive few, if any, of these generous paid leave benefits, as well as those laboring in retail distribution centers, many of whom make little more than minimum wage.
Inexplicably and paradoxically, this action on leave policies works against your recent legislative efforts to ease the teacher shortage to fill classrooms with more qualified teachers. While time will tell whether those efforts to add teachers will work, they are at odds with the legislation you just passed that will increase daily and long-term staff absenteeism, further denying students critical instructional time but, incongruously, may encourage some individuals to join the teaching profession.
Significantly, as school districts strive with halting results toward recovering student learning lost during the pandemic, this law will see more teachers absent from their classrooms and substitutes in their place when they can be found. Needed now and in the future are more—not fewer—qualified and quality teachers and substitutes present daily in the classroom. While it will probably take years to make up this learning loss, especially for disabled and disadvantaged students, your support for this legislation will only worsen the situation.
This new law also rewards a group of reasonably well-paid and protected employees whose only overwhelming distinction and advantage is that they are members of a powerful labor union with enormous political clout. You mistakenly conflated the personal and financial interests of school employees with the educational and emotional needs of students when little evidence exists that they align at all. The inescapable fact is that school employees and students compete for limited public resources, so the key is to properly balance the respective interests of both groups. This law significantly shifts the balance measurably toward school employees’ interests, not students’.
You were misled in believing that school employees taking more paid time off to better balance their families’ needs will somehow improve instruction and performance. There is no correlation between increased teacher absenteeism, a highly disruptive factor in learning and an inevitable result of this law, and improved student outcomes. The union’s argument that school employees now entitled to enhanced paid leave provisions and less oversight will be more satisfied and effective is ludicrous. In no way, will students benefit from this law.
Your action sadly takes on the unmistakable appearance of an enormous political payoff in anticipation of this fall’s legislative contests underscoring New Jersey’s ignominious reputation as being among the most corrupt states in the country.
This law violated the public trust by relegating the larger public interest to a special interest group that represents a narrow group of employees who, regardless of their recognized importance in the lives of children, already receive what few other employees receive legally and contractually. It further reinforces major cynicism that our democracy is in peril when politicians respond only to those who provide them with money, support and lots of votes.
While the bills were pending and before you took final action, the Office of Legislative Services (OLS), the non-partisan arm of the legislature, requested that the Executive Branch (the governor’s office and the Department of Education) prepare a fiscal note on the bill, which it failed to do. Without this information, the OLS proceeded to develop its own fiscal estimate that missed several critical factors: the large number of accumulated sick days available for some employees to use for reasons stated in the law, substitute or replacement teacher costs as school employees take more paid leave days and paid extended leaves lasting weeks or months, and ongoing contractual obligations left untouched by the new law. Had these factors been considered, the anticipated cost of this law statewide would have been significantly higher.
It was no surprise, then, that the legislation overwhelmingly passed both houses with little serious debate, though accompanied by plenty of bromides. It faced strenuous opposition from other education organizations with far less power and influence than the NJEA–- further underscoring a serious ongoing problem: the lack of any countervailing political force to represent and advocate for the interests of the state’s public school students.
The law preempted the collective bargaining process and now mandates benefits, which otherwise would have been subject to the “give and take” at the bargaining table. Instead, you legally sanctioned a wide array of new benefits without giving school boards the opportunity to seek and extract union concessions that could have mitigated local tax increases and lessened future operational difficulties. In some situations, local unions may have prioritized pay or other benefits over these leave policies; now school districts will be on the hook for both without negotiations.
The law also protects current contractual paid leave provisions and now allows paid sick days to cover previous unpaid ones. The bottom line is this new set of rights will provide school employees with the legal license to take more time off with pay, implode school budgets under the weight of additional substitute costs, present practical difficulties of running schools without an adequate number of staff, and, counterproductively, reduce critical instructional time when more is needed to compensate for learning lost during the pandemic.
Monitoring Procedures Weakened
To make matters even worse, not only have you set the stage for increased staff absenteeism and the array of problems associated with it, you have also further reduced the rights of school boards to monitor and enforce this far more permissive law. To the extent that school boards could insist on medical documentation in the case of possible sick leave abuse after only one day, the law now imposes a minimum of three or more consecutive sick days before documentation may be requested, and allows liberal leave notification requirements for an employee taking an extended paid leave of absences even though it might not be possible to secure a properly qualified substitute to cover the absent employee’s assignment. “Trust but Verify” was not part of the political equation.
While you, the legislature and the governor bear responsibility for this law, you are not the only ones at fault. The news media, an invaluable public watchdog, bears some culpability for this misguided law. The NJEA and its acolytes may not dominate state or local media outlets, what exists of them, but they largely drive the narrative, to the extent that other lobbying groups can neither compete nor offer a compelling counterpoint. Voters also bear responsibility. Many voted for you and will likely do so again without recognizing that this law will work against the broad educational interests of their school-aged children.
What is abundantly clear is that your vote for this pro-union legislation and others like it will probably guarantee you NJEA support this fall and allow you to serve at least another term in office. If so, I wish you well, but ask that you think hard about continuing down this path. When school districts and their students feel the full negative impact of you recent action, please ask yourselves these two discomfiting questions: Did I do my due diligence and the right thing voting for this law? And, did it truly improve the lives of students?
Marc Gaswirth, Monroe Township, NJ