TRENTON — Hundreds of New Jersey Education Association members rallied Thursday near the Statehouse, then delivered petitions with more than 116,000 signatures asking lawmakers to reduce what they pay for health insurance.

The petitions also ask for a new state law putting limits on privatization. The rally marked the union’s effort to replicate in New Jersey the teacher activism movement that has been growing in other states.

Under a 2011 law, teachers began contributing significantly more money toward their health benefits – as much as 35 percent of the premium’s cost, for the highest-paid workers. The union backs a bill that would instead tie that payment to a worker’s salary and cap it at 5 percent or less.

“This is an issue of fairness. It is an issue of respect for children, for public education and for our employees,” said NJEA president Marie Blistan, who was followed by chants of “We are worth it!”

The 2011 law was supported by then-Gov. Chris Christie and sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, so it would seem unlikely that Sweeney – who has feuded with the NJEA – would allow a vote on a bill to partially undo the changes.

Last year, school-purpose property taxes increased $348 million statewide – the second-largest jump over the last eight years.

Bethanne Augsbach, a third-grade teacher who is president of the Monroe Township Education Association, said changes are needed to “reduce the devastation caused” by the pension and health benefit changes of 2011.

“We deserve respect, and that means affordable health care,” Augsbach said. “Should a teacher in New Jersey ever have to decide between paying her mortgage or getting her chemotherapy?”

“Should New Jersey teachers and educational support professionals have to work one, two, three, four or more jobs to afford quality health care?” she said. “Is it acceptable for a teacher with 30 years’ experience and a master’s degree, is it acceptable for her to have to rely on food banks and her church to make ends meet?”

Such a teacher would have a base salary of around $89,000, if she had worked her entire career in Monroe.

The health-care bill advocated by the NJEA is S2606/A4352. It has four sponsors in the 40-member Senate and 24 in the 80-member Assembly.

In addition to health-care changes, NJEA members also want to protect the jobs of educational support professionals – such as bus drivers, food service workers, custodians, paraprofessionals, secretaries and security guards – through bills making arbitration available for disciplinary actions and blocking districts from entering into subcontracting agreements during the term of a collective bargaining agreement.

“It is time we stop allowing boards of education to balance their budgets on our backs. We are not a budget line item for boards to slash,” said Lois Yukna, president of the Middlesex County Education Association. "Privatization doesn’t work. It never has, and it never will.”

“It’s time for Trenton to fix the unfairness,” said James Frazier, a school security officer in the Union Township schools and 1st vice president of the Union County Education Association.

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