Princeton Regional Education Association protests in response to contract negotiations with Board of Education

Malachi Wood addresses Princeton Regional Education Association members in front of PPS’s central offices on Valley Road at the May 27 rally. photo: Severine Stier

Passersby honked their car horns, eliciting cheers and waves from approximately 120 PPS teachers clad in blue Princeton Regional Education Association shirts. Marching down Nassau Street and the streets adjacent to the Board of Education and Administrative Offices building, many teachers held up signs with messages such as “A great place to teach?” “Why are we going backwards in pay?” and “We deserve to be treated with respect.”

photo: Severine Stier

Protestors cross Nassau Street as part of the rally. photo: Severine Stier

“We are the greatest power for good,” said history teacher John Baxter, who heads the PREA negotiations team, in his opening remarks to the rally, citing the words of Superintendent Stephen Cochrane. “Never have I felt more that we are the adversary, that we are being treated as the enemy.”

Taking place on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 27, this gathering was the second public demonstration of the PREA as a result of their current negotiations with the BOE.However, differences exist between the PREA and the board, which largely center around the evolution of salaries and health care.

The 2011–2014 contract between the PREA and the BOE is set to expire on June 30. The negotiation process for the new three-year contract, which began after spring break, has been accompanied by efforts to raise awareness by teachers and staff in the PPS district. These initiatives have included the circulation of informational flyers, a rally at the district’s central offices on Valley Road, and strong turnouts at board meetings.

The first major public demonstration took place on Thursday, May 15, when students arrived in the morning to find teachers in PREA shirts standing around the perimeters of all the Princeton Public Schools. As parents dropped their children off at school, these teachers handed them flyers, and, in some cases, explained the contract negotiations to parents in person.

“The big purpose of the pamphlets was just to get information out to the public,” said PHS history teacher Mark Shelley. “A successful education system involves many constituencies—students, teachers, administrators, parents, community members, all kinds of people [who] need to be aware of what’s going on.”

However, PHS parent Matt Ishibashi ’79 said the flyer did not provide adequate context for most parents to understand the teachers’ predicament. “The average parent would have no clue what [the terminology used in the flyer] means,” said Ishibashi. “They have no reference with which to make an educated decision about this.”

The teachers took a different approach in their rally at Valley Road. “We can’t underestimate what’s at stake,” said French teacher Malachi Wood, head of the PREA’s action team, during the opening remarks of the public event. “We can’t underestimate how important it is for the BOE to see us, to see that we are paying attention, we are watching, and this is important to us.”

Like the distribution of pamphlets, the picketing aimed to spread public awareness of the situation. “I think the majority of parents and community … trust the process and expect everything to go the way its supposed to go, and unfortunately it’s not,” said Littlebrook Elementary School second-grade teacher Joanne Ryan, president of the PREA.

While many teachers expressed enthusiasm in their demonstrations, some were also concerned that the union felt it had to resort to a picket. “We want to be in a classroom, we want to be with [the students],” said PHS special education teacher Renee Szporn. “We don’t want to be out here … This is not what we do.”

On the evening after the picket, teachers turned out in large numbers at the board meeting. Several teachers, including Baxter and Wood, addressed the board during the open public forum portion at the end of the meeting.

“We’re not being respected for the professionalism, for the experience that we bring,” Wood said at the open public forum. “We’re not valued for the countless hours we put into everything we do, from teaching in the classroom [to] extracurricular activities … and we need to be.”

While details of several other areas of the contract have been and will be changed, Baxter said that the major topics of contention between the PREA and the board include the evolution of health care benefits, the upward mobility of teachers in the steps system of longevity and salary increases, the maximum amount of teacher contact time with students, and the effect of raises on the salaries teachers receive for extra services such as serving as club advisors.

Baxter said that the PREA would not agree to a contract that did not include higher wages, which involves adhering to the district’s salary guide, in which every teacher has the opportunity to move up a step each year and concurrently obtain an increase in salary. Currently, according to Baxter, the board is offering a salary increase not significant enough to correspond to the salary guide.

However, additional considerations restrict the board’s allocation of money to teacher salary increases. “Under state law, the board cannot present a budget that would cause a tax increase of greater than two percent to the Princeton taxpayer community,” said board member Patrick Sullivan, head of the board’s negotiations team. “In that context, other expenses are not in our control. For instance, general education, special education, transportation, healthcare, and other costs are subject to market forces and [are] not subject to the two percent cap, so we always have a challenge to balance the budget while meeting the needs of all of our constituents.”

Moreover, PREA contests the absence of the accompanying increase in stipends for extra services if and when teachers do receive a growth in income. “Teachers who are coaches, who are advisors, who are performing arts advisors, whatever it may be, they get extra pay for extra services, and, right now, the board is offering no increase for that pay,” said Baxter.

Additionally, the board proposed that teacher contribution to health care benefits would continue at the fourth and final tier implemented by Governor Chris Christie. For four years, starting in 2011, the percentage contributed by teachers toward their health care has been increasing under state law each year. According to Baxter, the PREA maintains that the legislation applies to only the first year of the new contract, meaning that the amount of health care costs that teachers contribute for the next two years is legally negotiable. In the board’s proposed contract, teacher contribution to premiums must remain at the fourth-year tier instead of reverting to collective bargaining. At the same time, the premiums themselves will continue to rise, as will the contributions of most individual teachers.

Finally, along with the issues related to compensation and health care, the board has proposed an increase in teacher contact time from five hours of classroom instruction and one duty period to six hours of classroom instruction, in addition to the duty period.

Ishibashi said that the proposed changes mirror the economic hits being taken by employees in all sectors. “Everybody’s asking you to give a little more for the same thing,” he said. “Almost everybody who I know basically works more hours than they did and aren’t necessarily getting compensated for it.”

In the meantime, the PREA and the board continue to negotiate in the process to reach a final agreement. “We have great respect for our professionals and have worked hard to provide them with a proposal that maintains excellent health care coverage, creatively reduces healthcare costs, offers some salary increase, and allows the district to sustain a budget with a state-imposed [two percent] cap,” wrote Cochrane in an emailed statement. “I remain hopeful we will come to an agreement that benefits our teachers, fulfills our fiscal responsibility to our community, and continues to promote the positive and exemplary learning environment of the Princeton Public Schools.”

Correction: June 15, 2014

An article that appeared in print and on the Tower’s website on June 13, 2014, about the Princeton Regional Education Association’s contract negotiations with the Board of Education, incorrectly attributed the content of a quote to John Baxter. Baxter was quoted as saying, “We are the greatest power for good.” While Baxter did make this comment during the opening remarks of the rally, he was citing the remarks of Superintendent Stephen Cochrane.

photo: Caroline Smith

Teachers walk downtown with picket signs. photo: Caroline Smith

photo: Caroline Smith

Teachers gather by the flagpole before school on May 16, the second day of morning protests. photo: Caroline Smith