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N.J. Teachers Back At Work

Middletown teachers returned to the classroom Monday, three days after 228 of them who were jailed for defying a back-to-work order were freed. However, they still don't have a contract — the issue that took them out of the classrooms in the first place.

An agreement reached Friday with Superior Court Judge Clarkson S. Fisher Jr. calls for the teachers and school officials to work with a court-appointed mediator to reach a contract. The main sticking point in the negotiations is health insurance and whether teachers should pay a greater share of the costs.

The agreement with Fisher specifies only for non-binding arbitration by a court-appointed mediator. And neither side seems ready to give in on its contract demands.

The mediator, former Seton Hall Law School dean Ronald J. Riccio, will have one week to file his report after he has concluded whatever fact-finding he needs.

"You can quote me on this. We're not done with them," teachers union president Diane Swaim said, referring to the district.

School board president Patricia Walsh fired back. "We can only be depressed at the sheer futility of a course of action which cost this community and thousands of students, parents, teachers and secretaries so much only to end up with the same situation that existed before the strike," she said.

Teachers in the well-to-do community walked out Nov. 29 but were served the same day with a back-to-work order issued by Fisher.

When they defied the order, he began sending them to jail last week to try to end the strike. He and two other judges went down the list of union members alphabetically, starting with the As and Bs and getting into the Rs.

About one-quarter of the 1,000-member staff — 228 — was behind bars. The teachers were given one-week sentences and told they could get out earlier if they agreed to return to their classrooms. Seven relented before Friday.

Before they were led away to jail in handcuffs, many of the teachers made impassioned speeches about their love of the job and their willingness to suffer the consequences of their defiance. Many were excused from the jail terms because of hardship or family reasons.

At least three teachers announced their retirements or resignations rather than face jail time.

The National Education Association said it was the biggest mass jailing of striking teachers since 1978, when 265 were locked up for 18 days in Bridgeport, Conn.

The teachers, who make an average of $56,000 annually, are fighting a move to increase their health care premiums by up to $600 per person, per year. Currently, they pay $250. The district has 10,500 students.

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