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Princeton School Board and Teachers Reach Impasse in Contract Negotiations

Princeton Teachers Union protest
Princeton teachers at a recent rally.

The battle between the teachers union in Princeton and the school board is becoming more acrimonious as contract negotiations keep stalling. Teachers have been working without a new contract since this summer.

A bargaining session Thursday night lasted less than an hour. Representatives from the union issued a statement after the meeting ended, saying the board refused to offer any counter proposals to the union.

“The Board has now refused to move for two consecutive meetings, despite significant movement by the association,” wrote Princeton Regional Education Association representatives Joanne Ryan and John Baxter. “There is no evidence that the extraordinary attendance and comments at the public meeting last week had any impact, other than to increase the board’s obstinance. They continue to maintain their position on Chapter 78 and refuse to bargain premium contributions for years two and three. They refused to make a counter offer on salary. The board has not increased its 1.8% salary offer since April. Tonight the Board insisted that PREA members accept lower health care benefits to fund any additional salary increase above the 1.8% offer. PREA members have already saved the Board $700,000 in premiums this year.”

The union called an end to the short meeting because of the ongoing disagreement over whether premium contributions are subject to collective bargaining under state law. The union would like the school district to reduce their healthcare contributions that have been imposed by New Jersey State Law, Chapter 78. The union contends that premium contributions are no longer a matter of law. The board disagrees.

“The problem with the PREA’s demands is that they are simply unaffordable,” school board representatives Patrick Sullivan, Molly Chrien and Andrea Spalla said in a written statement about the negotiations. “The PREA’s current proposal for salary increases and healthcare givebacks is far in excess of the maximum tax raise we could ask taxpayers to pay by law under the 2% cap on tax increases. As fiduciaries for the children and for this community, we cannot pay what they are asking us to give.”

School board members say programs would be cut, teachers would be laid off, and class sizes would increase if teachers receive the increases they are demanding.

“Simply asking taxpayers, or the district, to pay more jeopardizes the quality of the education we provide to our children,” said school board representatives. “If we gave more than a reasonable amount to PREA, we know that programs and teachers would need to be cut. Our children’s class sizes would increase. Our duty as board members is to our children and our taxpayers, and is to sustain the high quality of our schools, which we all value.”

Representatives for the school board said they are seeking a fair, sustainable contract to protect class size and educational quality.

“The issues in this negotiation come down to salary and benefits, but the real issue from the board’s point of view is the sustainability of the quality education we provide to our students,” wrote the board members.  “The board is seeking a contract that has a reasonable salary increase for teachers, controls healthcare costs for both sides, and includes a fair salary guide that gives teachers a predictable salary increase in each year of the agreement.”

School board members say there is a fair deal that can be reached with the union. The deal would involve looking at salary increases coupled with health plans that save money for both sides.

“We cannot negotiate salaries in isolation from health benefits. We need to collaborate on solutions that benefit us both in order to maintain educational excellence – we cannot simply pay more, and certainly not more than we have to give,” said the board members. “In our meeting, PREA asked us to counter-propose on salary only, while refusing to propose any benefit plan other than the status quo, or to discuss any of the board’s offers on health benefit plans that would save both sides money. In addition, we have proposed a pay increase and a salary guide that provides predictable and fair pay increases each year. PREA refuses to discuss those proposals…We hope to arrive at a solution, but in order to do that, both sides need to work together and work within the confines of what is prudent, sustainable, and best for our children and our taxpayers.”

Negotiators from the school board and the union will meet again Oct. 22. A mediator will meet with the union and the board on Nov. 20.

Below is a letter to the editor submitted to Planet Princeton by the union’s head negotiator.

October 6, 2014

Dear Editor:

Our October 2nd negotiations session with the Board’s team lasted less than an hour. The primary reason for the disappointing evening was the on-going disagreement over whether premium contributions are subject to collective bargaining under the law, Chapter 78. A short recounting of recent history is needed to appreciate the position of the PREA.

Three years ago at the bargaining table the PREA did not expect the Board to offer anything to counter the premium contribution rates of the new law, Chapter 78. Despite the corresponding windfall to the Board, our position appeared appropriate since obviously the Board was not responsible for passing the law and it was the intent of the legislature that we not bargain anything in return. The Board in fact did not give anything in return to the teachers and the other education professionals. Rather, the Board claimed it had little money to offer. PREA members therefore agreed to no salary step movement for two of the contract’s three years.

We tried desperately to keep the financial damage to our members to a minimum and yet some have lost as much as $5,000 in take-home pay. Modest salary increases have been no match for the rising premium contributions under Chapter 78. Meanwhile, the Board has enjoyed three years with no increase in their premium payments. At the time, three years ago, we had no idea that our premium contributions would cover 100% of the premium increases for the three years to come.

In addition we also agreed in our last contract to drop two health benefit plans effective July 1, 2014. This saves the Board roughly $300,000 this year. This is in addition to the $400,000 increase in PREA premium contributions given to the Board as we’ve moved from Tier 3 to Tier 4 rates.

Now the Board wants to hold PREA members at the Tier 4 rates, as high as 35%, for two additional years. Not only that, the Board is relying upon a controversial interpretation of Chapter 78 in order to blame the law rather than accept any responsibility at the bargaining table for the cost of Tier 4 to PREA members. This is the reason negotiations quickly ground to a halt last Thursday.

It is our position that after this year, premium contributions are no longer a matter of law as the Board contends. The contributions are subject to collective bargaining – as twelve other school boards have demonstrated by negotiating three-year contracts with new rates for years two and three. If the legislature intended that teachers remain at Tier 4 for three years it would have explicitly written that into the legislation.

The Board is responsible for negotiating future premium contributions with all the give and take that may involve at the bargaining table. What the Board’s team is doing is not complying with law, but rather making a choice to try and get something for nothing from PREA members. Good faith requires that the Board be willing to bargain for whatever it is they want from PREA members, not hide behind highly questionable interpretations of the statute, in order to get something for nothing.

At the October 2nd meeting the Board continued to refuse to negotiate premium contributions while “offering” PREA members: a devalued salary guide; longer work hours; no pay increase for coaches and club advisors; an end to longevity; a decrease in health benefits; and a 50% increase in the tuition paid for children of out-of-district teachers. As for the Board’s “it’s the law” position, they asked what PREA would give in exchange for them being willing to negotiate premium contributions. Can the Board really believe the law prohibits bargaining and yet be willing to break the law for a price? We hope for progress at our next meeting on October 22nd.

John Baxter
PREA Negotiations Chair

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.

  • princetonresident

    @planet princeton- it would be interesting to find out what the candidates for school board (in this November’s election) think about these negotiations and what they might do to avoid this situation next time the contracts are up.

  • Local

    I am with the School Board as well.

  • Jim Jenson

    Princeton teachers are (mostly) fantastic, and their compensation, when healthcare and pension contributions are included, is a lot more than it was 5 years ago.

    Most Princeton taxpayers can’t say the same. Despite the PREA chatter, I am with the School Board.

  • princetonmom

    OK, I shouldn’t have used that analogy. But to be clear, I’m not comparing teachers to pedophile priests. I’m comparing the Catholic Church to teachers’ unions, specifically the NEA. Both are huge powerful organizations more concerned at times w/politics and overprotecting their members than the people they are ultimately serving, their parishioners/students. I never said I was against tenure. I agree that teachers need job protection. However, there are tenured teachers in this district who should not be teaching and are. And they will never be fired because the union protects them at the expense of the students. Why shouldn’t this change?

  • Joe

    I think it’s really spurious to compare supposedly “underperforming” teachers to pedophile priests. But it’s a “nice” way to defame and demean tenured public school teachers. It is not impossible to get rid of bad teachers, administrators and principals have all the tools in the world to do that. If they do get rid of tenure, then the older more expensive teachers will have targets on their backs. Principals will be under pressure to look for any excuse to dump an older teacher, no matter how good they are. The states that do not have tenure do a lot worse than NJ. NJ schools are top rated along with MA and CT and that’s with unions and tenure.

  • princetonmom

    I’m well aware that tenure has been “reformed.” But it hasn’t made a difference with teachers who already have tenure. They just get moved around, kind of like pedophile priests in the Catholic Church. It’s virtually impossible to fire a teacher who already has tenure. That’s the problem.

  • Joe

    Tenure just means that a teacher gets due process not a guaranteed job for life (contrary to all the propaganda from folks like Christie). Tenure has been reformed, the appeals process has been streamlined and shortened and the probationary period is now 4 years. Administrators and principals get paid the big bucks to observe and evaluate the teachers and to document their effectiveness. Tenure protects teachers from false accusations and witch hunts by the occasional crazed parent or petty martinet administrator.

  • Sad

    Unless you have proof otherwise, it was an administrative error. Making baseless claims is really sad. The mud-slinging needs to stop. We have a great community, but that doesn’t mean that everyone can get what they want — on either side.

  • princetonmom

    I think it’s time for the PREA to face reality. Healthcare costs have skyrocketed for everyone outside the system and wages barely keep up w/the cost of living. Teachers deserve a fair wage, but they also must be realistic. If there is no money in the budget, it won’t magically appear. And please don’t raise taxes, they’re already through the roof. We currently have a child in public school. Some very good teachers, but also some who have obviously checked out long ago. I can’t think of any other job where you can do an awful job, get paid very well and face no repercussions. Time to revisit tenure.

  • SandyStevens

    Also, did you know the teachers were not paid on pay day? Allegedly an administrative error. You could cut the disdain from the BOE at the last public meeting with a knife. Fight back community, don’t let them erode education.

  • JustSaying

    The teachers are wonderful, and according to the article, have been offered a raise. But there’s not enough money for the raises they are asking for.

  • Sandra J. Bierman

    I am with the teachers. PPS wanted to set money aside to year down the Valley Rd Bldg, costing money to taxpayers, and they can’t afford the teachers a raise? Seriously?
    Sometimes, it seems that the PPL board members act guided by ego and do not want to compromise.

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