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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bridgewater-Raritan teachers union, school board reach tenative agreement

By Stephen Stirling/For The Star-Ledger
March 26, 2010, 10:39PM

SOMERSET COUNTY - In an 11th-hour deal tonight, the Bridgewater-Raritan teachers union and school board reached a tentative agreement that includes $1.4 million in contract givebacks, a move that could save several teaching positions and sports from the chopping block, district officials said.

Specific details of the agreement reached in Somerset County’s largest school district were not released because the plan has not been voted on by the Bridgewater-Raritan Education Association membership, officials said. But school board President Jeffrey Brookner told parents tonight the savings would be put towards teacher salaries and funding high school and middle school sports and music programs that were in danger of being eliminated from the 2010-11 budget.

"I apologize for being wishy-washy, but the deal was literally struck just an hour before this meeting began," Brookner told about 250 parents and teachers on hand tonight for the board’s budget hearing at Bridgewater-Raritan High School.

If ratified by the BREA, the deal would provide some relief to the district, which lost 55 percent of its state aid and was preparing to slash upwards of $10 million from its initial $136 million budget.

The agreement came just days after Brookner said contract negotiations were all but dead. Both sides traded and rejected proposals from one another last weekend, leading Brookner to say Wednesday that the board did not expect any givebacks from the union.
The stalemate even drew the ire of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, whose press secretary blasted the union in an statement Thursday.

Brookner said the board was expected to informally approve a budget plan tonight, pending the approval of the $1.4 million deal with the teachers union. The savings could possibly reduce the planned 4.8 percent tax increase originally proposed by the board, and could reduce the 76 teaching positions earmarked for elimination.

If the deal falls through the board plans to put a supplemental question on the ballot next month asking voters for an additional 0.32 percent tax increase to save high school ice hockey and winter track teams and middle school sports and after-school clubs, officials said.

Superintendent Michael Schilder said the budget process has taken its toll. "It’s not easy. It’s hard to be driving home at night and realizing that the cut you just made doesn’t make any sense, that it’s wrong and shouldn’t happen," he said.

"No one is to blame for the loss of state aid. It happened and we have to deal with it," he added.

The board is expected to reconvene and formally adopt its budget next week at a time and place to be determined.

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