Breakdown after one year of contract negotiations leads to fact-finding process

Hundreds of students walked out of class on April 23 to show support for the PREA.

Hundreds of students walked out of class on April 23 to show support for the PREA. photo: Nathan Drezner

For the first time in the history of the district, contract negotiations between the Princeton Regional Education Association and the Board of Education have broken down and will enter the fact-finding phase, which may take up to a year.

The declaration was made by the PREA after four sessions with state-appointed mediator Katie Vogt. “Given the lack of progress and the Board’s most recent proposals, we felt that continuing to meet wasn’t productive. State law requires that the next step from mediation is fact-finding,” said John Baxter, head of the PREA negotiations team. “It just takes one side to make that statement.”

After the board made a proposal that PREA did not want to counter, the union decided to move on to fact-finding. “The proposal that they had put on the table was unclear as well as inequitable. To counter their proposal would mean for us to move off of our position in response to no movement, or very unclear and unacceptable movement from their side,” Baxter said. “The board insisted that we give a counter proposal to their last proposal. We refused to counter propose in response to a proposal that was unintelligible. That was when it broke down.”

Shahieym Brown '16 was interviewed by the Princeton Packet during the walkout. photo: Nathan Drezner

Shahieym Brown ’16 was interviewed by the Princeton Packet during the walkout. photo: Nathan Drezner

The board, however, disagreed with the PREA’s decision to move into fact-finding. “I know that everyone on the board’s team was very disappointed and surprised that the PREA leadership decided to move the parties into the costly and lengthy fact-finding stage rather than making a counteroffer,” Board President Andrea Spalla said. “[The board] had hoped to achieve a resolution without resorting to the fact-finding stage.”

The role of the fact-finder is to review reports from each side that contain facts about their arguments. “Each side will prepare a report and a presentation to the fact-finder of facts that we believe back up our position. The fact-finder will take those reports and come up with his or her own report and recommendation for what would be an acceptable agreement,” Baxter said.

Both sides will have ten days to decide if they will accept the fact-finder’s recommendation. A report on the negotiations will be released to the public even if an agreement is not reached. The fact-finder will cost $1,500 a day, and the cost will be split between the PREA and the BOE.

While the PREA have their own funds to pay for the fact-finder, the board will be paying with taxpayer money. “Unlike mediation, in which the state-appointed mediator assists the parties at no cost, fact-finding is costly … In the board’s case, of course, that means that the fact-finding costs will be ultimately borne by the taxpayers.  This is another reason why the board is disappointed and frustrated by the PREA’s decision,” Spalla said.

However, some parents are willing for their taxes to go into the fact-finder’s paycheck. “The value of the things students miss out on because teachers don’t have a contract, such as AP review sessions and clubs, is far greater than the amount of money we have to pay to hire a fact-finder to solve this issue,” said PHS parent Chunmin Yin.

In comparison, on May 20, the board quickly approved new three-year contracts with the other two of the district’s three employee associations, the Princeton Administrators’ Association and the Princeton Regional Support Staff Association. The PAA counts administrators such as principals, supervisors, and assistant principals as its members, whereas PRESSA consists of the district’s support staff and aides. PRESSA’s approved contract was similar to the contract offered to the PREA—but while the PREA has not accepted this contract, PRESSA took the offer.

According to Baxter, there are four main sticking points preventing a resolution. “I’d say that [the main] issues [are] the devaluation of the salary guide that the board is proposing, the maintaining premium contributions at the tier four rate that was imposed by the law, and the board wanting to maintain rates beyond this year, a change in longevity, and proposals to change our health care benefits,” he said.

The job actions that the PREA have taken will be sustained until there is an agreement. “The cancellation of unpaid activities will be continued. The idea is that it will continue until we get a new contract,” said French teacher and PREA member Malachi Wood.

The decision to cancel unpaid activities will also affect summer programs. “Any summer programs that are uncompensated will not take place,” Baxter said. This will include sports practices prior to the second week of August, when preseason begins.

The PHS athletics coaches released a letter to the parents of student athletes explaining their reasoning behind cancelling summer practices. “[We] are dedicated to continuing with our current job actions until a fair, equitable agreement is reached with the Board of Education …. [so], we will not volunteer our time to engage in any planning, coordinating, supervising, or other involvement with summer camps, leagues, practices, scrimmages, conditioning, or weight-training sessions,” the letter stated.

The extended nature of these negotiations has caused some teachers to reevaluate their jobs in Princeton. “It’s terrible for morale, and I know some teachers who are looking around for other jobs, teachers who don’t feel as valued or welcomed here. They don’t feel that their future is as bright or secure here,” Wood said.

The community, however, has shown support for settlement. On April 23, hundreds of PHS students participated in a walkout, congregating on the front lawn to show support for their teachers. “I was very grateful for the show of support … the students, more than anyone, are stakeholders in this. It involves you. Regardless of what the message was, it was great to see the students voicing their opinions,” Baxter said.

Noa Levy ’17 was one of the many students who attended the walkout, missing sixth period. “Since all of the kids walked out, it would send more of a message than just the teachers standing up for what they want. It creates a ripple effect,” she said.

Despite the differing views that exist on almost every aspect of the negotiations, many just want to remind the two sides that students still care about the wellbeing of their district and its educators, as demonstrated by the walkout.  “It’s the thought that counts. Just the fact that we all banded together to show our [awareness] of the issues that are going on is what is most important. I’m not sure if [the walkout] affected the negotiations all that much, but it’s just a way for the student body to remind [the BOE and the PREA] that we are still here and we really want this to end,” said Grace McGuirk ’16.

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