Teachers agree to return to work in town where one-fourth of them were jailed over strike

Friday, December 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FREEHOLD, N.J. (AP) _ Striking Middletown teachers agreed to return to work next week, ending the walkout that put more than 200 of them in jail for defying a back-to-work order, both sides said Friday.

Lawyers said the union and school district will enter nonbinding mediation.

Judge Clarkson S. Fisher Jr. began sending teachers to jail Monday in an effort to persuade them to end their strike. He had issued a back-to-work order shortly after the walkout began Nov. 29.

By the end of Thursday, the number of teachers behind bars had reached 228, or about a quarter of the staff. They were expected to be released from the Monmouth County Jail immediately, but remained jailed as of 12:30 p.m., though Middletown Education Association attorney Sanford Oxfeld said Fisher called the jail after he left the bench.

It was the biggest mass jailing of striking teachers since 1978, when 265 were locked up for 18 days in Bridgeport, Conn., according to National Education Association spokeswoman Darryl Figueroa.

The teachers were called before judges in alphabetical order, starting with the A's on Monday. By Thursday, three judges were working on the case, and they had reached the R's.

Many of the teachers made impassioned speeches about willingness to suffer the consequences of their defiance, their love of the job and their contempt for Board of Education leaders.

``I try to teach my students this country is fair and just,'' teacher Barbara Guenther, 57, told Superior Court Judge Ira Kreizman this week, her voice breaking. ``In this process, the law is not fair and just. Sometimes, good people have to stand up to fight an unjust law, and that's what I'm doing.''

Each of the jailed teachers had been scheduled to return to the courtroom one week after their incarceration began, raising the possibility that they could have lost their jobs.

Even before Friday, seven teachers who were sent to jail had agreed to return to work in exchange for their release. At least three resigned or retired in the courtroom rather than face jail time.

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.