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New Jersey Teachers Union Ordered to Court Over Benefit Negotiations

A New Jersey judge is hauling the New Jersey Education Association into court to explain why the union's representatives on a key commission have been skipping meetings to hash out healthcare plans and rates for public school teachers and retirees, reports The Record.

New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino asked Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson for "emergent relief" in effort to compel the NJEA representatives to the table in time for the School Employees' Health Benefits Commission to approve the new system.

The administration of Republican Gov. Chris Christie contends the revamped plans and rates will save taxpayers $70 million over the next years, before the open-enrollment period starts on October 3.

"The NJEA-Commissioners' deliberate absence is in violation of the law, the public trust, and their fiduciary duty," Porrino contended in court documents, reports the Associated Press.

The NJEA's resistance appears to stem from the fact that the nine-member School Employees' Health Benefits Commission is currently down two members, including the member who is supposed to represent the AFL-CIO.

Wendell Steinhauer, NJEA president and one of the commissioners who has been skipping the meetings, contends that Christie has been trying to "manipulate" the commission by refusing to appoint a new AFL-CIO representative. Steinhauer says that by not appointing a new member, the governor has ensured that the commission will vote in favor of the administration.

"Christie's blatant disregard for the law and his attempts to manipulate the commission are utterly inappropriate," Steinhauer said in a statement. "We will fight vigorously and look forward to the opportunity to present our case in court. We will pursue every legal opportunity to uphold state law and defend the legal rights of our members against the governor's inappropriate actions."

The NJEA gets three seats on the board. Given the commission's current vacancies, at least one of the NJEA members has to show up for the commission to have a quorum.

This court case is the latest battle in a six-year war between the NJEA and the Christie administration. It started almost as soon as the Republican took office in 2010 and launched a successful campaign to cut state workers' pension and benefits. Not long after, he pushed through teacher-tenure and -evaluation reforms that required new teachers to earn two years of satisfactory ratings on evaluations before getting tenure protections and let districts strip tenure from teachers with a string of low ratings.

Judge Jacobson has ordered the union to appear in court next week and make a case for why it shouldn't have to draw up a list of meeting dates between September 8 and September 15 when its representatives will be available for a commission meeting, reports The Record.

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