Mediator joins negotiations as cancellation of activities nears

Teachers gather along the sidewalk to protest before school. photo: Caroline Smith

Teachers gather along the sidewalk to protest before school.
photo: Caroline Smith

Four months after their previous contract expired on June 31, Princeton Regional Education Association members continue to work with the Board of Education toward a mutually satisfactory contract.

In protest of the slow progress of negotiations, as well as lack of compensation for additional work like advising clubs and chaperoning trips, the PREA plans to cancel non-Extra Pay for Extra Service activities, beginning December 1.

Many of PHS’s clubs are advised by teachers uncompensated for their extra work. Since club meetings require the presence of an advisor, many clubs will no longer be able to officially meet, making this the most visible impact to date of the negotiations on students’ day-to-day lives.

The PREA’s job action initiatives are led by PHS French teacher and PREA action team leader Malachi Wood. “It’s hard for us to do because there are opportunities and activities that we make possible to provide for students. It’s a difficult [decision we had to make], but after four months under an expired contract, and after seeing the same pattern over and over, again, it becomes too much,” he said.

While this action will be unfavorable to many PHS students involved in club activities, some students, including Nora Schultz ’15, find this next step to be justified. “Part of what comes along with … being a teacher is going above and beyond without being asked,” she said. “I think that what’s more important is that a resolution is reached, and if [canceling] is what it takes, no matter how terrible it would be, I would be in support of it.”

Some students find that the benefits of participating in extracurricular activities outweigh the possible rewards for the PREA. “Clubs are important to not only gather people and make friends, but they are also important for things like helping the community and helping out for colleges,” said Nicole Klein ’16. “It’s kind of selfish if [teachers] just decide to not do it anymore.”

Owen O’Donnell, a parent of two children in the district, agrees that it is within the teachers’ rights to cancel extra work in order to make a point to the board. “They have to take a stand and show where their efforts go into and make sure that people [including the board] appreciate them,” he said.

While negotiations with the BOE are causing the PREA to take its latest job action, the board has stated that it does not plan to prevent teachers from withdrawing extracurriculars. BOE Vice President Andrea Spalla wrote in an email, “As for any PREA plans to cancel work or activities, whether compensated or not, the Board will not take any action that it believes infringes on PREA members’ rights.”

Progress in the contract negotiations continues to stall due to many of the previous points of contention, most notably the interpretation of the Chapter 78 law and salary guide devaluation.

Under the contract for the previous three years, teacher contribution to health care premiums increased each year, as mandated by Governor Chris Christie in 2011. When a new contract is reached, in year one teachers will be paying Tier Four premiums. Under Chapter 78, a state law dealing with teacher health care premiums, the board believes premiums at Tier Four should be continued throughout the duration of the new contract. On the other hand, the PREA believes years two and three of the premiums should be negotiable, citing the fact that 11 other New Jersey school districts have done the same.

At a negotiation session on October 22, the BOE proposed creating a five-year contract to extend the length of time between future negotiations sessions. According to the proposal, teacher contributions would remain at Tier Four for all five years. “By lengthening the parties’ collectively bargained, mutually satisfactory agreement, the Board hopes to obtain a longer period of labor peace,” wrote Spalla. “[This would] minimize disruption to the operations of the schools and allowing the parties to focus on the important educational goals we share for our community’s children.”

However, the PREA feels this new proposal is a move in the wrong direction.

Also at the October 22 meeting, the PREA negotiations team offered a solution to the health care issue, suggesting a switch to the State Health Benefits Program. This program allows all educators from New Jersey to join, and having more people pay into a healthcare plan lowers premiums for both the district and the teachers. The State Health Benefits Program was originally proposed by the board early on in the negotiations. “I think it’s something both sides should be interested in, because it does save more money in premiums than anything else we’ve looked at,” PHS history teacher John Baxter said.

The board did not make a counter-proposal in response to this offer. “While the board team has shared its concerns about the state health plan with the PREA team – namely, the historic volatility of those plans’ premiums and the reality that all employees, not only PREA members, would also have to move to the state plan – we are nevertheless very interested in hearing more about what possible cost savings the PREA team thinks that plan could generate,” wrote Spalla.

Despite setbacks concerning healthcare, the October 22 negotiations meeting included a step toward resolution for both sides on the issue of salary increase. “The board started the night with a new proposal in response to ours, and the positive part of it was that there was an increase in the salary offer, from 1.8 to 2 percent in year one, and from 1.86 to 1.9 in year three,” said Baxter.

Parents, teachers, and students spoke at the board meeting on October 28. photo: Sarah Gavis-Hughson

Parents, teachers, and students spoke at the board meeting on October 28.
photo: Sarah Gavis-Hughson

The meeting on November 10 also resulted in some progress on smaller issues, including the board repealing the clause requiring the child of an out-of-district teacher to leave the district at the end of the school year in the event that the teacher were to die.

Nevertheless, the PREA team was disappointed to see that the board had not moved on the issues of benefits and salary.

On November 20, the teams met separately with state mediator Kathy Vogt. This was the first negotiations session with the mediator present, and no new proposals were made. Baxter said Vogt listened to both teams’ positions and posed questions that the teams will answer at the next meeting on December 9. Ultimately, the mediator will recommend a course of action. “It is the board’s hope that the mediator will help the parties focus on common goals and reach an agreement that supports both parties’ economic objectives – just as she successfully did in 2011,” wrote Spalla.

In an effort to provide the Princeton community with a better understanding of the issue, Jennifer Cohan and Nicole Soffin, parents of children at Community Park Elementary School, founded a parent group called the Community for Princeton Public Schools earlier this school year.

CPPS aims to increase parent involvement in not only the negotiations but also in the school system as a whole by keeping the community informed through their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages and by organizing gatherings with other parents.

CPPS believes informing the community of the negotiations is vital for the growth of the school district. “I think this is a seminal moment for the community,” Cohan said. “It’s important [for the community] to be aware of what is going on.”

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