PATERSON, NJ – The recent labor contract that instituted a merit pay program for teachers in Newark has spurred Paterson education officials to try to implement a similar system in the Silk City, according to union leaders.

Paterson Public Schools officials have been asking for a merit pay structure ever since the current contract negotiations began, union leaders said. But the district has shown “renewed interest” in that option after the Newark teachers reached a merit pay agreement last fall, said Sasha Wolf, a field representative with the New Jersey Education Association who is working on the Paterson negotiations.

The district may be interested, but the union isn’t. “We’ve told them we’re just not interested in merit pay,’’ said Peter Tirri, president of the Paterson Education Association, the local union.

District spokeswoman Terry Corallo declined to comment on the merit pay issue because the teachers’ contract has not been settled. Paterson teachers have been without a new contract since July 2010.

Merit pay certainly is not the only issue separating the two sides. For example, another point of contention is the district’s proposal to increase the number of teaching periods for high school teachers, according to union leaders.

The debate over the benefits of merit pay is one that’s being conducted a statewide and national stage. New Jersey Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf has pushed for the inclusion of merit pay systems in local school districts.

Advocates say merit pay will improve the quality of education being given to students by forcing poor-performing teachers to improve in order to get salary increases, rather than giving them automatic raises every year. Moreover, advocates say merit pay rewards the best teachers.

But opponents question whether the fairness and accuracy of the systems that would be used to evaluate teachers. Also, the state education association asserts that merit pay pits teachers against each other and undermines the solidarity of the union. They argue that merit pay is a means of “union-busting’’ and that salary increases should be based on teachers’ years of experience and the advanced degrees they hold.

“It’s a very difficult issue,’’ said Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund, an advocacy group. “As you know, the school system is highly political. So far, I’ve got no confidence that the evaluation they’re going to do for merit pay is going to show real correlation to teachers’ performance.’’

In Newark, teachers are being given the option of shifting into the merit pay system. Those who do will be given up-front bonuses simply for making the change, according to NJ Spotlight. The Newark plan calls for teachers themselves to be part of the teams that would evaluate teachers for merit pay. Teachers deemed effective in Newark’s worst-performing schools would extra bonuses.

The Newark teachers are represented by a different union umbrella group. They are affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, while the Paterson union is part of the National Education Association. The education association has taken a much harder line against merit pay, union leaders said.

Tirri said Paterson Public Schools’ merit pay proposal would only provide raises to teachers passed on performance assessment. No one would get annual, across-the-board increases, he said.

Some school board members say that’s not true. Board President Christopher Irving and Board Finance Chairman Errol Kerr said their understanding was that the district was offering the teachers merit bonuses in addition to regular raises.

“I certainly support a merit pay system, as long as it’s clear and it’s fair,’’ said Irving. “We need a system that rewards teachers for doing a good job and doesn’t reward who don’t do a good job.’’

“If you perform above and beyond, you deserve more than the others,’’ said Kerr.

Tirri said the union was concerned that the merit pay system would become an exercise in favoritism, in which people with personal and political connections would benefits, while others would be left behind.

Paterson Public Schools currently is testing a new system for evaluating teachers’ performance that district officials have said is more directly tied to their students’ test scores. But the union leaders say the new system focuses on negative findings. At present, the evaluations are not part of the process for determining whether someone gets a raise. 

Years ago, Tirri said, Paterson Public Schools had a program in place that provided employees bonuses if their schools met certain goals. But those bonuses were in addition to regular pay increases, not instead of them, Tirri said. Moreover, if a school met its goals, all employees at the school received the bonuses, not just teacher, he said.

The district’s administration scrapped that program because pretty much all of Paterson’s school employees were getting bonuses, according to union leaders.

Tirri said there’s one major factor that sets the Newark merit pay initiative apart from any such proposal in Paterson. “We don’t have a Sugar Daddy,’’ he said.

In Newark, city school officials plan to tap into the $100 million donated by Facebook executive Mark Zuckerberg to pay for the raises. In Paterson, there’s no special account like the Zuckerberg contribution to use for merit raises, and budgets have been so tight that there have been layoffs two of the past three years. Union leaders say the fiscal situation in Paterson indicates that any merit raises would be given out in miserly fashion.