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.