Although the 2014–2015 school year has begun and the previous contract for Princeton Public Schools teachers has expired, no consensus has been reached between the Board of Education and the Princeton Regional Education Association concerning the contract for the next three years.
After the BOE declared the negotiations at an impasse to the state over the summer, third-party mediator Kathy Vogt was assigned by the New Jersey Public Employees’ Relations Commission to facilitate discussion between the PREA and the BOE, beginning November 20. Paid by the state, the mediator’s main role will be to expedite the exchange of ideas and proposals by communicating with the two parties separately and determining possible areas of movement.
However, the PREA believes the board’s decision to appoint the mediator was premature. “We felt very strongly that the board jumped the gun on going to a mediator … We were making progress, and we didn’t even have all of the information we needed to see if we could have made [additional] progress,” said John Baxter, PHS history teacher and chief negotiator for the PREA.
The board made the decision due to the fact that there is a limited number of mediators statewide. “The earlier that the school districts ask for mediation, the more likely they will be able to schedule a mediation and not have to wait months,” said Assistant Superintendent Lewis Goldstein. “The mediator would be in place in case we don’t reach agreement.”
While the board has been offering a 1.8 percent increase in the teachers’ salary guide since April, it presented the PREA with an exact figure proposal at a negotiations meeting on July 24, taking into account the requests of PREA members. “The board provided the PREA team with extensive information and detail about its proposal on salaries and benefits—details which were developed in part in response to concerns and points raised by various PREA members who attended and spoke at the board’s public monthly meetings,” wrote BOE Vice President Andrea Spalla in an email.
According to the PREA, the board’s offer is not only below average in comparison to other school districts but also devalues the salary guide and inaccurately reflects the experience and services that educators bring to PPS. However, the board believes that devaluation is an inaccurate portrayal of the proposed changes concerning salary. “The board does not look at it as a devaluing of the salary guide,” said Goldstein. “The board looks at it as an opportunity for the salary guide to be put into place for the next couple of years, and feels that it helps to address some of the inequities that are in the current salary guide.”
Aside from salary negotiations, the board has reevaluated its original proposal to mandate teacher enrollment in Health Savings Accounts. Instead, the teachers would have the option to participate and, according to the board, also help decrease healthcare costs. “When you have [a Health Savings Account] offering, insurance companies will reduce your premiums … [and] therefore reduce the overall cost to teachers and the district,” said Goldstein.
The board contributes approximately 60 percent of the costs for the HSA. However, Baxter believes the HSA plan is not ideal for frequent users of the healthcare system due to the high deductibles that accompany the plans.
The issue of negotiating health care costs for the second and third years of the contract remains prominent due to contrasting interpretations of the Chapter 78 law. As an alternative to the board’s insistence that the law extends Tier 4 to years two and three, PREA has proposed creating two separate contracts, a solution that both sides agree is sanctioned by the law; however, the board has rejected this suggestion, despite the fact that 11 other districts statewide have negotiated years two and three.
“If we can get over this issue, it [will be] like breaking the logjam … It frees up so much more for us to work with, that I think [board members] are doing a disservice, not just to teachers, but to the taxpayers of Princeton. They are abdicating their responsibility as elected officials,” said Baxter. “They are not understanding that there will not be a contract without this change in their position.”
PREA members who reside in Princeton wrote in a letter to the editor in the Princeton Packet that the two percent cap’s limitation on the entire PPS budget does not mandate an effect on teachers’ salaries. Meanwhile, according to a negotiations update presentation by the BOE on August 26, certain immutable constraints need to be considered when allocating the budget, such as the continuation of the two percent cap, flat or reduced state aid, the plateau of health benefit contributions by teachers, increased enrollment at the high school, and the rising costs of special education, healthcare, and transportation.
In an op-ed to the Princeton Packet, Baxter and PREA president Joanne Ryan listed other changes that took place this year, including an increase in member contributions to premiums by law, the withdrawal of two-member insurance plans, a proposal to eliminate a set limit for the school day, and the board’s approval of unchanged health benefit coverage and a substantial raise for the administration, while refusing to do the same for members of the PREA.
The raise inequity set forth by the board is partially due to the amount of time teachers work during the year as opposed to administrators, according to Goldstein. “A 2.4 percent increase is given to administrators over 12 months. Teachers work ten months. Therefore, to equate the same raise, that would only be a two percent increase over ten months,” he said.
Nevertheless, the board will conduct further negotiation on salary increases if needed. “It’s not a final offer—they are proposals. Both parties have to come closer to the middle,” Goldstein said.
To increase awareness of these issues, PREA’s action team has continued to carry out various communication initiatives led by Malachi Wood, PHS French teacher and head of the team. “From wearing the [PREA] shirts to passing out flyers, to rallies, to coming to board meetings, we try to engage the [Princeton] community,” Wood said. As with previous rallies, PREA members congregated at Valley Road before the September 11 negotiations meeting.
In addition, the team maintains a Twitter feed and a Facebook page called “A Sea of Blue–Princeton Educators,” referring to the blue T-shirts worn by PREA members. The action team has distributed flyers supporting their cause and hung them up in the windows of local businesses supporting the PREA.
While Wood said that the action team’s initiatives have increased community support for the PREA, he, Baxter, and Ryan have expressed concern that teacher discontent and anxiety over the contract negotiation could become an unnecessary distraction. “The board’s current contract proposals already risk eroding the morale of our highly qualified staff … A secure career path should be offered to professional educators to attract and keep the best talent possible for our children,” wrote Baxter and Ryan in the op-ed.
AP teachers have already distributed a letter for parents concerning the potential removal of services teachers provide outside of school hours, such as AP exam review, until a contract agreement has been reached. “Due to the current status of being without a contract and teachers losing money with each paycheck, we simply cannot continue going above and beyond our daily professional obligations while our Board of Education refuses to acknowledge us for the professionals we are,” they wrote.
The BOE has seen support and empathy from the district as well. “A key characteristic of any compromise is that each party walks away only partially happy with the result,” wrote Spalla in an email. “Almost every comment I’ve heard from Princeton residents, other than PREA members, reflects this understanding.”
Nevertheless, the negotiating teams remain hopeful that they will continue to make progress on the contract, without affecting the work of PPS educators in the classroom. “If you’re involved in negotiations and you’re not optimistic, you probably shouldn’t be involved in negotiations,” said Baxter.
“Princeton is one big family,” Goldstein said. “Sometimes families disagree. Sometimes families can agree to disagree, too. So, hopefully we can agree to disagree in a professional manner [without] hampering the educational process.”