Planet Princeton

Teachers Union and School Board Still at Impasse After Latest Negotiating Session (Updated)

Teachers lined Valley Road and Witherspoon Thursday to call for a new contract.

Despite hopes that a settlement could be reached last night, teachers in the Princeton Regionals Schools are still without a new contract after a marathon negotiating session that ended after 5 a.m.

Both the union and the school board negotiating teams are expected to issue statements later today.

More than 150 teachers rallied outside the administration building of the Princeton Regional Schools district Thursday afternoon prior to the start of the latest negotiating session to demand a new contract.

Waving posters with slogans like “Support PRS teachers, settle now!”, “A strong education equals a strong economy” and “We want to keep what we have”, teachers marched in the cold for about 45 minutes, forming a line that snaked down Valley Road, around the corner along Witherspoon Street.

Teachers in the district have been without a contract since the end of June. The teachers union, the Princeton Regional Education Association, represents about 360 teachers. Union and school district negotiators have met with a mediator a few times since September to try to reach a new deal.

“We left the last negotiation session after spending 11 hours on our side talking, with good intentions, but it got us nowhere,” head union negotiator John Baxter told teachers at the rally. “”But there is reason for hope tonight. The superintendent told me she is hopeful – beyond hopeful – and confident we will have a contract this evening. Should we be successful, our work-to-contract will come to an end.”

Frustrated by the contract negotiation stalemate, teachers have staged a “work to contract” protest since December, meaning they are fulfilling the terms of their contract to the letter, but not going beyond those terms and doing things many would normally do like arriving to work early. After teachers returned from the holiday break, they began standing outside the schools every morning to call for a settlement.

In a letter that went out to some parents in the district in December, the union claimed that increases in legislated health benefits and pension contributions mean many teachers’ take-home pay will be below what they receive now.

“During the negotiation process, the Board has asked for further givebacks which will only compound these pay cuts for a substantial portion of our membership,” the letter reads. “Superintendent Wilson and the Board of Education seem indifferent to this fact.This is a problem.”

Union leaders would not discuss specific contract issues Thursday because they are part of ongoing negotiations, which both sides have agreed would remain confidential until a tentative agreement is reached. Teachers have expressed anger at the administration, questioning administrative spending. It is not clear what kind of givebacks teachers have been asked for or what kind of percentage they are demanding for salary increases.

At a December school board meeting, School Board President Rebecca Cox said school boards, teachers and community members all share a new landscape since the last negotiations with the teachers in 2008, before the economy crashed.

“The unemployment rate is still high, the economic recovery is fragile, and the state government continues to make major decisions that impact New Jersey’s school districts, sometimes in negative ways,” Cox said at the December meeting. “A lot of these changes are directly affecting our district. Three years ago, the cap on the property-tax levy was twice as high, health-care contributions were lower, and raises statewide were double what they are today. Now we are in a new fiscal reality in the state, in the nation and in the world.”

Cox said board members have a dual role both as stewards of taxpayer money and to ensure the provision of the best possible programs and services to students. “We have finite resources and must be fiscally responsible and sensitive to community and taxpayer concerns, she said. “We recognize and appreciate all of the hard work of our administrators, our faculty and our support staff.”

Average pay raised for teachers dropped to their lowest level ever in 2011, according to an analysis by the New Jersey School Board Association. Contracts settled in 2011 averaged a little over 2 percent for raises for the 2011-12 school year. Some unions have settled for raises below two percent. For example, teachers in Island Heights in Ocean County settled for a 1.5 percent raise, while teachers in Hillsdale in Bergen County received raises of .75 percent.

In September, the school board for the Princeton Regional Schools approved a three-year contract with the Princeton Regional Administrators Association, which represents 18 administrators in the district, including principals, assistant principals, supervisors and the athletic director.

The contract included a salary increase of 1.98 percent for the 2011-12 school year, and 2.25 percent in 2012-13 and in 2013-14. The contract is retroactive to July 1 and expires in June of 2014. Longevity pay for administrators who have worked in the district less than 10 years was eliminated as part of the terms of that contract.

In 2010 the district reached a two-year agreement with the third union in the district, the Princeton Regional Employees Support Staff Association (PRESSA), which represents instructional assistants, secretaries, and custodial and grounds workers.

Under the terms of that deal, the 133 employees represented by PRESSA received a raise of 1.5 percent for the first year of the contract, plus a cost-sharing payment for health insurance averaging about $742 per employee. For the second year, employees are receiving raises of 2 percent.

Givebacks from the union included the elimination of a board-paid disability plan, the merger of five health plans into three plans, the establishment of weekend work shifts at Princeton High School to minimize overtime, an increase in the co-pay for the district’s drug prescription plan and the subcontracting of night cleaning services at the high school.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Beth

    I know plenty of people in the private sector who have received their bonus checks this year. I do not know of any teacher who receives the same bonuses. Many teachers struggle and find a job during their “3 month” leave. This is not paid time off.

  • CG

    Hi Beth, no one on this blog is bashing teachers. My position is that we should try maintain salaries and do our best to continue to provide good health insurance. In order to do that, we have to get rid of last century labor work rules and unsustainable benefits. That’s not bashing. Do you know anybody in the private sector who has gotten a raise? Do you know anyone who is not a teacher who gets 3 months leave every year? We all have to be realistic about the new economic situation.

  • Beth

    It is sick the way this community is bashing its teachers. I would be embarrassed if I lived a community that would not stand up for the very people who care for its children, day in and day out, for eight hours a day, at the least. We must remember that teachers do not benefit when the economy is doing well and many in the private sector are receiving their bonus checks. But when the economy is in a down turn, people will jump on the fact the teachers are asking to maintain their salaries, while every year the work load increases.

  • CG

    Double Standard? has opened Pandora’s box. The administrators’ contract is indeed another outrageous document that needs fresh air and the light of day…next time around. ..I strongly support fair compensation, commensurate with that of the citizens in our community, with sustainable benefits and rational work rules. However, no one, in any job today, should imagine for one moment that they can “keep what they have” in this brave new world. Have a look at Greece to see what becomes of a society with too much debt, early retirement, and unsustainable salaries and benefits.

  • Double Standard?

    I believe that fairness should be the rule here. How can the Board ask teachers to give up more when they pass a contract with the Administrators that includes yearly “longevity” pay after only 2 years and bonuses each year on top of that? Since when do public employees get bonuses? Check your facts before you knock down the teachers for standing up for themselves. Spending money on the people who actually work with the students seems a better use of funds in my opinion. If the administration wanted to cut spending they would have given up more themselves.

  • Peter Marks

    I am no apologist for the Superintendent’s compensation package. As I stated in my earlier post, it is not helpful that our administrators are unembarrassed by the terms of their latest contract.

    Krystal reports that current contract discussions are confidential, so we do not know either what the school board has offered or what the teachers’ union has requested. It is difficult, however, to view the pre-existing contract as anything but generous. As summarized by CG in his (her?) initial post, that contract includes: annual pay increases; a work year that is limited to 37 weeks (185 days); a generous allocation of sick days that accumulate throughout one’s career and can be redeemed in cash at retirement; a generous allocation of paid personal days; a modest daily limit on the number of hours that are encompassed by one’s salary; healthcare insurance that can be traded for cash — and then presumably be reinstated whenever one is sick; a guarantee of job security until retirement; and a guarantee of retirement security until death.

    Teachers have a pretty good bargain. Their union does its members no favors when it asks that they poison public opinion by picketing, calling attention to inflexible work rules, and protesting a compensation package whose life-time job security and 15 or more weeks of vacation are unimaginable for private sector workers.

  • CG

    In response to Amy … 12 months pay for 10 months work is the way it has been, for sure. But that is so “last Century”! I am suggesting that we must re-examine such assumptions. It’s time to think different. Don’t you think it would be better to maintain salaries, health insurance and avoid layoffs than to raise salaries, keep antiquated unsustainable benefits, and layoff 25% of staff? We are living in a different time – bigger government, slower growth, and fewer tax payers means we all have to do with less. The idea that teachers can “keep what they have” assumes we taxpayers are going to lie down and just pay up. It’s time to think differently about all these bizarre benefits. when it comes down to it and the taxpayers realize what they are paying for, well, that will be a revolution too.

  • Amy

    Why would anyone in this day and age believe that a teacher gets a 2 month “paid” vacation. If you read what you have written it is based on a “10 month” employee which the Princeton Regional School teacher is, as is every other school teacher in the state.

  • Amy

    Why would anyone in this day and age believe that a teacher gets a 2 month “paid” vacation. If you read what you have written it is based on a “10 month” employee which the Princeton Regional School teacher is, as is every other school teacher in the state.

  • Martha Friend

    Hi, Peter. I, too, am a Princeton native and product of our public school system. I’m also a teacher here in Princeton and proud mother of three children attending Princeton Regional Schools. As a recent Republican candidate for Borough Council, I would caution you to know all the facts about those Princeton public school teachers you seem to, kind of, be supporting. . . maybe. We are also the same people who have households with “salaries of those whose pay the bills [that are] falling or disappearing” and NO ONE “expect[s] that their medical bills will be paid entirely or substantially by others.” It might be more interesting to research the benefit package our Superintendent enjoys until June 2014.

  • CG

    I think almost everyone would agree that our teachers’ salary and benefits should mirror those of the citizens in our community. Every professional I know has seen their salaries cut and their health insurance costs steadily rise these past few years. Friends who changed to “4 day weeks” ended up working 5 days with 20% pay cut…. a change that is permanent for them – or at least establishes the “new baseline”. Those on Social Security saw no “cost of living” increases in several recent years. My 30 person small business has frozen salaries, ended our defined benefit plan, and adopted a high deductible health insurance plan …all in order to avoid layoffs. The reality is that we should be talking about whether we have to reduce the cost of our teachers’ contract by 10% or only 5% – OK, that won’t be fun, but perhaps we should start the discussion at zero? In any event, we should not be raising anybody’s taxes, not one percent – not even one cent.

    Regarding the PREA contract negotiation, I spent an hour perusing the 2008-2011 contract, a 63 page relic that will make your eyes fall out. I think discussions about health insurance and salary are really a distraction from the real long term budget problem. Here are some of my favorite clauses from the contract that will make your eyes water:

    Page 14: “The in-school work year for teachers employed on a ten (10) month basis shall not exceed one hundred eighty-five (185) days” …Wow. That means 2 months paid vacation plus all the public and academic holidays in the school year. I know that is not “news” but sure it this must now be seen as an parachronism.

    Page 15: “Teachers assigned to a sixth period five days a week for the school year shall receive $10,000 in pensionable salary added to their base salary for that year or portion thereof” …. Wow. The costs for an extra hour today will go on for decades. That is an unsustainable notion.

    Page 18: regarding cafeteria and playground duty…”Duty pay shall be $50/hour ….” … Wow… This time is within the 7 hours and one minute we are already paying for. Nobody objects to extra pay for extra hours for coaching, or club supervision…but it seems we are paying twice on this one.

    Page 34: “Unused sick-leave days shall be accumulated from year to year, with no maximum limit.” Wow. I had to read this three times … then I felt sick. I can see carrying a week forward, but why would anyone expect to be paid for unused sick days?

    Pages 35 to : the litany of reasons for which teachers are “granted time off without loss of pay” is stunning. If one had a to care for a sick relative (or close friend!), a death in the family, a marriage, a few personal days to go to the DMV, before you know it you have 20 more days off. Wow. This seems crazy to those of us who work 10 hour days, 5 or 6 days a week, 11 months a year. We really should respect the teachers more, because if they took all the days off they are entitled to by contract, they would hardly have time to be in the classroom.

    Page 46: “Employee can opt out of major medical insurance with a $2,000 reimbursement per annum, prescription drug coverage with a $400 reimbursement and dental insurance with a $100 reimbursement, but can reenter during any open enrollment period.” …Wow. Why would we pay someone for not taking a benefit offered?

    All of these items – and more – could be revisited and revised to produce significant cost savings while the important health insurance and basic salaries and stipends for coaching could be maintained at current levels. Unpleasant as it may be to all those trapped in the negotiation sessions, this approach is the only sustainable path forward. Courage.

    Here’s the link to the 2008-2011 contract as a pdf..: http://www.prs.k12.nj.us/hr/PREA-2008-2011.pdf

  • Sid E. Liner

    The current unemployment/underemployment rate in the U.S. hovers around 25%. People are losing their homes. Retirees are receiving almost 0% on their hard-earned savings. The nation teeters on the edge of long-term fiscal collapse. Federal employees, who pay up to 30% of their healthcare insurance, after being told that salaries would be frozen, are now going to get a half of one percent increase. (It’s an election year.) The population of Princeton Borough is declining because residents cannot afford the high property taxes, half of which goes to the schools. Yet, Princeton teachers chant “We want to keep what we have.” Why should they be immune to the belt-tightening we all face? Frankly, they have not made the case for their “exceptionalism.” What kind of role-model are they for their students? The “me-first” attitude taken by the teachers is symptomatic of what ails our nation these days.

    Unfortunately, for too long the school board itself has been part of the problem of overly generous salary and benefits contracts. But in this instance, it is being realistic and should be commended for its efforts to hold the budgetary line in the public interest.

  • bill sword

    Well said, Peter!

    Under the straightened circumstances most public authorities are facing these days, any raise at all is a win for the union. They should accept the offer the Board has made, which is at least as good – better? – than neighboring districts.

    We all have to pay more for health insurance and other benefits. Teachers should get used to our shared national awakening that we all (including the taxing authorities) have to live within our means.

  • Peter Marks

    Like Abbi, I am a graduate of PRS elementary, middle, and high schools. Both of my parents were teachers, one of them in our high school. My father was for a time President of the Princeton Regional School Board. My brother is happily employed as a teacher, albeit at a private school and therefore without the benefit of tenure and a union driven salary.

    The issue is not that teachers are slackers. I understand fully that good teachers spend nearly as much time out of the classroom as they do in the classroom — i.e. that evenings and weekends are often spent grading papers or preparing for class.

    Nor is the issue a desire to reduce the quality of our various educational programs — though I do think we might do a better job of defining “quality” as it relates to educational objectives.

    Whatever one’s political biases, it is a simple fact that public sector employees have, for many years, been the beneficiaries of promises whose cost has proven in hindsight to have been unsustainably high. All over the world, we are today witnessing a readjustment, The readjustment can be wrenching (e.g. in Greece) or it can be softened by foresight and reasonableness.

    Here in Princeton, property taxes have risen rapidly and inexorably — to levels that would amortize purchase money mortgages in many communities, and to levels that equal or exceed the payments required on many mortgages in our own community. As we all know, the school tax represents at least 50% of our annual property tax burden.

    The recent furor over the last revaluation reveals the extent to which property taxes are forcing many property owners to reconsider their residency in Princeton. Meanwhile, those of us who are self-employed are being told that we must soon, as a matter of law, buy third party health insurance policies or pay stiff fines. Those of us who have been prudent and disciplined in our personal budgeting find that our savings earn little or nothing — at a time when “non-core” purchases (the food, gasoline, and heating oil that make our lives possible) climb at rates that are often stunningly high.

    Teachers might ask themselves whether it is reasonable to expect that they have an unlimited claim on the properties of people who reside within their school districts. Teachers might ask whether it is reasonable to expect that their salaries will rise even in years when the salaries of those whose pay the bills are falling or disappearing — or whether it is reasonable to expect that their medical bills will be paid entirely or substantially by others — and without limit. Finally, teachers might consider that the penalty for failure to pay property taxes is foreclosure, and that that penalty has been levied widely in recent years — often for no reason other than the accident of a lost job or reduced wages.

    It is not helpful, of course, that our school administrators are unembarrassed by the revelation that their own salaries will increase by 1.98% this year — and by a guaranteed 2.25% per year during each of the next two years. One might have thought that our well compensated administrators could have endured at least a few years without a pay increase. And one might reasonably ask why annual pay increases should be viewed as a matter of right — irrespective of the level of one’s salary and the breadth of one’s authority.

    The strength of our community — and our country — are directly proportional to the willingness of our residents (and citizens) to refrain from demanding that others subsidize individual preferences. Equal rights are fine, but they imply equal obligations. In the case of the teachers, and the admistrators who govern them, equality of obligation should extend to a large measure of personal responsibility for healthcare and pension costs. It would also be heartening to see some evidence of gratitude for the job security represented by life-time tenure — and a corresponding concern for the residents of a town that is being altered irrevocably by the soaring property taxes that make that job security possible.

  • JJ

    I am extremely sad to learn that there has not been an agreement on the contract negotiations between the teachers and the PRS school board. Indeed our teachers are the most valuable component in our children’s education and we benefit daily from their dedication and professionalism. We value our teachers and we want them to feel valued and respected. I wish there was an easy solution to this conflict, and I have to admit that we have very limited information on the issues and the numbers being discussed. I very much wish we (the taxpayers) could give the teachers what they are asking for and life could go back to normal. But there is a sad reality that is affecting all of us. Our country, state, and town are suffering from a severe recession. Parents in our community are losing their jobs. Whereas in the past we faced increases in our medical contributions, we are now facing no subsidy at all from our previous employers and very large payments to COBRA so we can have medical insurance for our families. This is our new reality. Whereas we have always supported tax increases for education, we are now wondering if we will need to move to a smaller house because we will not be able to meet our tax obligations in our neighborhood. Our neighbors, retired PU professors, and the like, have seen their pensions reduced and their savings disappear. They always supported tax increases to fund education. But now, they need to keep their expenses from increasing. So in April. they may not support a tax increase. The PRS Board posted a statement on its website asking parents for suggestions as to “where to cut” so funds can become available. I took a look at the budget and saw that already there are hardly any capital or building improvements budgeted. So what is left? Non – required programs: Full day K, languages, art, many electives? How many teachers will lose their jobs if PRS cuts these programs? How do they choose which ones to cut? No matter what, sacrifices will be made. Can we find a middle ground?

  • notsomuch

    Also as both a parent and a homeowner, I’m more skeptical than Abbi about the relative merits of the teachers in the current labor dispute. I’ve been less-than-impressed by the quality of the teachers in the district, and I’m far from enthusiastic or willing to continue to pay the kind of tax rates that are now charged to support this behemoth. Labor costs are certainly not the only source of bloat in the local budget, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about voting with my feet given both the current tax rates and the quality of the schools. If there’s not a serious adjustment in the contract given the current fiscal and economic environment, then it would be obvious that something is seriously wrong.

  • Abbi

    For many teachers and staff, the new mandatory cost-sharing structure for health insurance results in an effective pay cut, and the impact may be greatest on the already lowest paid staff. Its important to understand that this is not a fight for teachers to get a raise when everyone else is struggling, this is a fight to hold the line against what for many staff will be an effective pay cut and reduction of benefits. Our elected representatives on the board and representing the district should understand that we in Princeton support our teachers in this town, and that Princeton voters place a great value on education and are paying attention to this negotiation and that we want our teachers and educational staff supported. Princeton voters have consistently supported the idea of valuing teachers and paying for our school district, not only do Princeton voters consistently vote affirmatively to support revenue to the school district, but the Princeton real estate community understands that a great many homeowners with children have come here and paid substantially higher prices for their homes in order to be a part of a district that values education. In addition to the families with children attending school in the district, many Princeton residents are employed in the field of education, at all levels and specialities, and support revenue for schools and educational programs. Princeton teachers and educational staff are not “overcompensated” and in fact many of our teachers can not afford to live in the town (and, teachers with school-aged children who do not live in the district must pay tuition for their children to attend the public schools here). Finally, as a parent with a child in the district and also as a graduate of PRS elementary, middle and high schools, I thank the Princeton teachers and education staff for standing up for their rights, this is good for our town and good for our children. Seeing the teachers organized outside our school in the morning has provided opportunity and example for discussion with my child about both the value of teachers and of standing up for one’s rights. Settle now.

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