By Joanne Ryan, Princeton Regional Education Association President
and John Baxter, Princeton Regional Education Association Chief Negotiator
For the second September in four years, Princeton’s public schools have opened without a contract between the Board of Education and the great majority of Princeton Public Schools employees. Typically, having no new contract means the status quo, including salaries, is maintained until a new contract is ratified. This year is different. NJ law Chapter 78 requires an immediate increase in contributions to health care premiums. Members’ contributions will increase to as high as 35%. These increased deductions means paychecks will be smaller until we have a new contract.
What we seek is a fair contract, one based upon the principle that a teacher’s standard of living should not decline even while remaining fiscally responsible under current constraints. We believe that is a principle we all share – Board, community, and union alike – because we recognize that it is essential to maintaining Princeton as a lighthouse district, one providing the very best in public education. We are also realistic and know that arriving at a contract that adheres to this principle is going to take hard work and creativity.
We are seeking a REASONABLE salary increase. This can be accomplished with a contract in the range of salary settlements of other districts in Mercer County. The Board’s offer of 1.8%, on the other hand, is below average among districts and includes devaluing our salary guide. A devalued salary guide is a lowering of the value placed upon experience and expertise. This is something Princeton has never done in past contracts:
In Princeton a teacher proves her/himself throughout the year and is then moved to the next step on the district’s salary guide established by collective bargaining. The teacher earns the raise. Movement up the salary guide is NOT automatic as some believe. Each year, the teacher must demonstrate the appropriate level of expertise. Doing so includes a series of observations by administrators, achievement of student growth objectives, annual professional development goals, professional learning communities, and preparation of daily lesson plans reviewed by department supervisor, all incorporated into an Annual Performance Review.
We are seeking to maintain the structure of our salary guide, and the value it places upon proven expertise. We are also seeking a reasonable reduction of healthcare contributions in years two and three of the contract. We ARE NOT seeking to eliminate our contributions. Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA) members were contributing to their healthcare long before the law required us to do so and when very few, if any, other associations were doing so. We will continue to make a significant contribution going forward. But even the Board admits our current rates of contribution are well above the national average. The intent of the Chapter 78 law was that after 4 years districts and associations could negotiate the amounts members contributed towards their healthcare. The Board insists that the four-year law binds us to Tier 4, the highest percentages of contribution, for two additional years.
We call upon the Board to change its position regarding the bargaining of contribution levels. We would like to work to craft a contribution formula that makes sense for Princeton as opposed to blindly adhering to Trenton’s one-size-fits-all approach to school districts. Saying “yes” costs the Board nothing – they do not commit to lowering the contributions.
By refusing to allow premium contributions to be part of the bargaining process the Board is taking a substantial tool out of our collective toolbox for the work of crafting a fair contract. For example, the Board agrees that our teachers who are paying 35% of their premiums are paying well above the average in the United States. Why not be willing to entertain reducing that percentage as one possible way of increasing take home pay? As it stands, the members paying 35% receive a salary increase only once every five years on our current salary guide.
Nine other school districts in New Jersey, in the same position as Princeton, have already negotiated contracts that include various different formulas for contributions for years 2 and 3. Those school boards have demonstrated that changes to the Ch. 78 formula are not just permitted; they are an equitable way of addressing the legitimate concerns of education professionals. We do not understand why the Princeton Board of Education, one that declares its high regard for teachers at every opportunity, does not feel the same.
There are additional facts that cannot be disputed:
– The Board is now paying LESS toward premiums than it did in 2011-2012. While overall, premiums have increased, they have been more than offset by member contributions. This year alone member contributions will increase by $400,000. That’s $400,000 the Board doesn’t have to pay Aetna.
– Members agreed to give up two insurance plans this year, saving the district an additional $300,000 in health benefit premiums.
Nevertheless, the Board is seeking to reduce healthcare coverage to our members.
– The current Board approved a significant raise for administrators WITHOUT any reduction in their health benefit coverage.
The Board has pointed out to the community that “more than 50 of our teachers make over $100,000.” That is a fact. Here are additional facts the Board did not share:
– All of these teachers hold either a MA plus 30 credits or a PhD and has at least 15 years in the district.
– To go from the lowest six figure salary, $101,184, to the highest, $108,050, (less than a $7,000 increase) takes ten years and requires obtaining a PhD.
– During those ten years, a teacher with a PhD. will receive two raises, one every five years, totaling a salary increase of $3,170 – or $317 for each year of service.
After her 26th year the salary guide provides for no further raises. With rising health care costs she is likely to see a smaller and small paycheck.
We stand ready to work with the Board to develop a contract that the community, PREA members, and the Board of Education can be proud of.