WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP (Gloucester) — Public school teachers in this South Jersey district are blaming the "volatility" of this year's presidential election for why 300 of them decided to take off work on Election Day.

The decision by the teachers prompted the district's superintendent to close schools with less than a week's notice to parents. School was already scheduled to be off on Thursday and Friday for the New Jersey Education Association's annual union convention in Atlantic City.

But some suspect the true reason may be a protest move by the local teachers union, which is in contract negotiations with the district. The union did not return a call for comment.

In a letter posted on the district website, schools Superintendent Joseph Bollendorf said he received more than 300 "personally signed" letters from members of the Washington Township Education Association informing him they would be absent from school on Tuesday in order to exercise their "statutory right to observe this public holiday."

Bollendorf said the district would not be able to get enough substitute teachers.

He noted that Election Day has never been a day off for the district and that the WTEA helped determine the school calendar, which is set two to three years ahead of time.

Board of Education president Ginny Murphy said the teachers' worries about safety on Election Day doesn't make sense.

"The truth of the matter is that we have 11 buildings in our district and only one is used as a polling location," Murphy said. Voting takes place in the gym of the Bellis Elementary School and the doors from the gym into the main building are locked, she said.

Murphy said that while Election Day is a holiday that teachers are allowed to take it off with pay, she is still "disappointed" that they gave only six days notice.

"As far as if it was a job action, you read between the lines," she added.

The union and district have been involved in a contract dispute since June, when the teachers' three-year collective bargaining agreement expired.

"We're in the first year of an unsettled contract," Murphy said. "They're not working without a contract. Let's be clear about this. They have a contract. It's expired and under the law it continues until they reach an agreement. They're getting their full paycheck and all their benefits are being paid."

WTEA president Gerry Taraschi on Thursday evening denied the decision by teachers to take Election Day off was any kind of job action and said it was a combination of safety concerns and exercising their right to take the day off.

Taraschi said 65% of the union's membership sent letters to Bollendorf about taking the day off as many wanted to work on getting the vote out. He said there were safety concerns about using elementary school as a polling location because even though access to the school from the school would be blocked, children looking out the window could witness potentially violent confrontations and be scared.

Taraschi compared giving the superintendent six days notice to a storm or emergency closing that would not allow for advance planning.

While not being able to recall the exact makeup of the members of the district's calendar committee, Taraschi said that while a teacher was likely part of it they were not a member of the WTEA executive committee.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com.

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