Before the face-to-face meeting on April 9 between the Princeton Regional Education Association and Board of Education, the PREA organized a community rally outside of the district administrative offices at the Valley Road school. “It [was] a rally of community members and faculty members of the PREA to show our support for negotiations,” said history teacher Jeffrey Lucker. “It [served] not only to send a signal to the community, but it [was] also a way of rallying our own support among our own members.”
Despite meeting face-to-face on March 26, April 9, and April 15 and exchanging new proposals, the BOE and the PREA did not make significant progress on major issues such as the salary guide and health benefits for district teachers.
These were the first direct meetings between the two sides in the negotiations since November 10, when a state-appointed mediator, Katie Vogt, was assigned to help reach a new contract. Both sides have met with the mediator four times over the last five months, but have opted to recommence face-to-face meetings.
John Baxter, head of the PREA negotiations team, found that face-to-face communication improved the speed and quality of the discussion. “[Both] sides saw [the meeting on March 26] as a better way of communicating, more efficient to have the ability to ask questions and give answers, and identify things that need to be clarified,” he said. “[We’re] continuing to talk and we’re talking in a more productive way right now.”
Members of the BOE agreed that the meeting aided communication. “I felt that mediation was also working for the parties, but adding the face-to-face component was a good idea,” wrote BOE President Andrea Spalla in an email. “Any format that allows the parties to work constructively towards compromise is a good thing.” The BOE has asked to have the mediator present at the meeting on May 4, to which the PREA has not yet agreed.
However, despite the improvements in communication, Baxter declined to call either meeting a complete success. “From my point of view, progress means where we actually arrived at a meeting of the minds, because that’s what’s required for a contract,” he said. “That’s not to say that there was no work done and continues to be done that moves us toward that meeting of the minds, but I hesitate to put the label of ‘progress’ on that.”
Spalla, on the other hand, expressed optimism and labeled the developments as progress. “The board team is pleased with the progress the parties made at our March 26 face-to-face meeting,” she wrote. “I am optimistic in light of the progress made at the March 26 meeting and at [the April 9] meeting.”
In particular, the exchange of new proposals aided both the PREA and the BOE in gaining a clearer image of the other side’s goals. “I think the proposals and the updated proposals that are put on the table help to focus each side on what the other side really is saying they need,” Baxter said.
Continuation of Clubs
Ongoing contract negotiations have forced advisors and members to find new ways to meet and conduct club activities. Since December 1, non-EPES clubs—activities which do not provide extra pay for teachers’ extra service—have been suspended. Some clubs have had to adapt to these new circumstances by changing their usual meeting locations and perhaps modifying any planned activities and events.
Although the contract negotiations between PREA and the Board of Education have had a significant impact on various facets of school activity, many club leaders are determined to continue holding club meetings despite these new and unprecedented challenges. “[We] can’t meet in our room … We have to meet in an open space,” said Prayer Group President and Student Board Liaison Kenny Xu ’15. “Prayer Group has always been a club that has been … extremely tight-knit, and people tend to come whether we meet in a room or not.”
Other clubs, including Junior State of America, have also continued to attend events and hold meetings. “We’re still doing what we have to do, we’re still having the bake sales, we’re still having our club [meetings] and everything,” said JSA member Michael Arato ’18. “We have to ask chaperones [to accompany us at conventions] … so that’s really the only major difference that has happened.”
Some clubs have been able to continue because, although they no longer have an advisor, they still have access to the club funds. “Our events all require money, so we can usually pull from [the Prayer Group fund], and so our fund hasn’t been frozen or anything,” said Xu.
Teachers find it difficult to prevent clubs from continuing to meet despite the cancellation. “Technically, [students are] not allowed to meet on the school grounds during the school day without an advisor,” said Malachi Wood, head of the PREA’s action team. “But, we certainly can’t stop students from interacting with each other when and where they want.”
Many students continue to support the teachers in the ongoing contract negotiations, in spite of the consequences for their clubs. “I agree from [the teachers’] position. I understand why they would be cancelling them,” said Diana Zhu ’16. “If you’re really going to enforce … the idea that you’re not getting a [fair] contract, then you should cancel them.”
On the other hand, some find that the decision should lie with individual teachers. Thomas Martin ’17 said, “I think that it’s an effective form of protest, but I don’t think that teachers should be forced into [cancelling clubs] by the union.”
The PREA has found this measure to be useful in raising awareness of the ongoing negotiations. “I think it’s been effective in making people more aware of what’s going on. I think that the more time that goes on, the more things that are affected, the more people become aware,” Wood said. “I hope that people understand just how much time we do give away on a regular basis … outside of our contracts, outside of anything we’re paid for.”
Some students, however, find that the cancelation of clubs’ meeting has had no positive consequences. “The only thing that shutting down clubs has been doing for this school, is hurting the student body,” said Xu. “These tactics are oppressive, and they need to be stopped right now if the teachers hope to regain the support of the student body and, of course, their parents.”
Nevertheless, much of the student body shows support for the teachers and protests the lack of progress made in negotiations, as shown by a student walk-out during sixth period on April 23. At the end of break, students did not go to their next class, but instead spent the entire period outside on the front lawn of the school. As of Monday evening, just over 200 students had RSVP’ed to the event on Facebook. “I think it’s more to make a statement that as students, we support the teachers. We want this resolved just as much as they do,” said Harrison Bronfeld ’15, one of the organizers of the event. “If nothing else, it will get the board’s attention. It’s more than just the teachers and the parents and the people attending the board meeting who care about this. The whole student body cares about the teachers, too.”
In a statement, Wood wrote, “As members of the PREA we are conscientious about never directing, guiding, organizing or influencing students in any actions on our behalf … We appreciate any expression and manifestation of support from students as well as from the community.”
Cancellation of Review Sessions
On September 15, AP teachers sent out a letter to parents warning that they would be forced to cancel extra services like AP review sessions if the PREA and Board of Education failed to reach a contract in time—and this warning has come to fruition.
“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 in the letter.
With AP exams looming, most students have already long since begun the preparation process, even as teacher-led review sessions are a distant memory. Some students have formed their own student study groups, meeting every week to review the content from the past year.
However, many students feel that teacher review sessions would have been greatly beneficial in their studying. “I think that the review sessions really helped me a lot [last year], so this year I’m kind of disappointed and bummed out that we’re not going to have them anymore,” said Zhu. “I study much, much better in a group … and especially when the teachers tell you, ‘Oh, this is really important, I know from past years that this is always on the exam.’”
Martin, who will take AP exams for the first time this year, also believes that the review sessions would be useful. “Would I go? Absolutely,” he said. “[The teacher] can help answer questions, or can help understand concepts, or just do plain review.”
Meanwhile, teachers have also attempted to adapt in order to prepare their students as well as possible within the confines of the cancellations. Lucker, for example, handed out materials he usually hands out in review sessions and tried to speed up the teaching of actual content in order to leave more time for review.
He finds that students should keep in mind that teachers are under no obligation to volunteer their time for evening review sessions. “Many of our students have come to feel that these review sessions are an entitlement, while in fact it’s something that we volunteer to do on our own with no compensation and not that much thanks,” he said. “[Teachers are] making a sacrifice, and it’s a sacrifice they can no longer make.”
Ultimately, many teachers see these actions as a way to ensure quality in Princeton education for future years. “My concern about supporting this event has less to do with myself, and more to do with the future of the school,” said Lucker. “I’ve committed a good part of my life to the school, and I’m thinking of future students and review sessions, and that they have the best teachers who want to come to school to do things like review sessions.”