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Former Princeton Public Schools Board President Addresses Union Negotiations, Finances

Quinn
Quinn

To the Editor:

It was my pleasure to attend the Feb. 3 meeting of the Princeton Board of Education to speak as a member of the public about the challenges facing the Princeton Public Schools. I served for six years and eight months on the board, including the previous 32 months as president. At the Feb. 3 meeting, I spent too much of my allotted five minutes sharing my perceptions of negotiations between the board and the union representing district teachers, leaving no time for my main message, which was to parents of students in the district. No one appreciates more than me the need to use the gavel to keep a public meeting moving along, so I hope to finish my remarks here.

To summarize my comments about negotiations: It seems to me that members of the Princeton Regional Education Association have propagated two false narratives. The first is that the board doesn’t respect teachers and consequently cannot understand the stress and uncertainty teachers feel about the current economic climate and these protracted negotiations. The second is that the board lacked leadership, foresight and ingenuity in negotiating in difficult times. Having worked with a majority of members of the current board and after reviewing public statements made by both sides, I find the first narrative absurd and the second simply inaccurate.

While I think it’s important to call attention to these false narratives, my real motivation in addressing the board on Feb. 3 was to speak to the parents who have attended board meetings for the past six or seven months, expressing concern about negotiations, particularly the parents of students in the district’s elementary schools. What gets lost as the board sits listening to the comments in the open forum is that its members are acting in the best interests of these parents, with a goal of ensuring that as their children grow, they will have the same — or even better — learning experiences as those currently offered to students at John Witherspoon Middle School and Princeton High School.

Board members are acutely aware of the forces working against the district’s culture of continuous improvement, including the 2 percent cap, flat or declining state aid, rising enrollments, increased healthcare costs and other expenses that outpace revenue. Last year’s board had to cut $1.6 million from the 2014-15 budget, which it was able to do without a significant impact to programs. While I’m not in the loop for the upcoming budget cycle, I assume this situation has not improved. In fact, I would guess that this year’s board is approaching a time when very difficult decisions need to be made about district programs, decisions that are going to affect the lives of students in much more significant ways than the amounts their teachers are required to contribute for health insurance.

Boards of education are elected to reflect the educational values of their communities and to communicate those values to the district administration. It’s not an easy job in any town, and it is particularly difficult in Princeton, where we value a wealth of opportunity for every student in our diverse community. That said, I urge parents to fully educate themselves about the fiscal crisis being dealt with by this board: think about what you would be willing to live without; share your values with board members; and learn just how relatively small a percentage of the district budget constitutes discretionary spending. Go to the board’s budget workshop, and follow that up by sharing your impressions of what you’ve learned at the budget hearing. It’s easy to go to board meetings and express support for teachers — just about everyone in this community is pro-teacher. What’s far more difficult is for members of this volunteer board of elected officials to take a hard look at the numbers and start weighing the merits of various programs and the impact that cutting or reducing programs will have on students. This is the true challenge Princeton faces and I wish the board and everyone in the school community the very best as they work to find solutions to this difficult situation.

Sincerely,

Timothy Quinn

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.

  • @tkq

    Thank you for attending board meetings, Mr. Dodge. I know
    Mr. Montgomery as a regular at full board meetings; in addition, he attends
    just about every meeting of the Student Achievement Committee, where
    discussions center on instruction.

    I’d like to address your first point if I could because, to
    my thinking, the administrator settlement has been used to advance the false
    narrative that the board doesn’t respect teachers. And what you’ve written
    about retirements is just not accurate. I’m sure you’ve heard board members say
    that the board deals in dollars, not in percentages. You’re correct in noting
    that the cost of the administrators raise was less that the amount a similar
    percentage increase would have cost had it been extended to teachers. What you
    don’t point out is what was reported in public: the dollar amounts are
    significantly different. The 2.4 percent raise amounted to about $75,000 spread
    among 20 or so administrators. As reported in public, 2.4 percent for all
    members of PREA would total somewhere in the neighborhood of $725,000, an
    amount close to the total budget increase allowable under the 2 percent cap.

    Your statement about retirements makes it sound as if the
    board pooled all of the money that would have been used to pay retiring
    teachers and handed that amount over to administrators. Stated that way, this
    is just not accurate. In fact, as few as two retirements among the one-third of
    teachers who earn more than $90,000 per year (or the 53 or teachers whose
    salaries exceed $100,000) would have covered the entire salary increase
    realized by administrators.

    I think it’s worth noting that the administrator contract
    was for one year and it expires at the end of the school year. Realizing that a
    new superintendent was starting mid-year, sometime in the late fall of 2013,
    the board approached both bargaining units to negotiate one-year contracts to
    give our new superintendent time to get to know the district without the
    demands of contract talks. PREA exercised its right to decline to negotiate a
    one-year deal, opting to negotiate a multi-year deal at a later date.

    As for the nature of these negotiations themselves, I’m
    afraid I can’t offer any insights. As you heard me say each month, I had no
    role in negotiations because my wife is a member of another NJEA local. As
    such, I was not privy to what happened at the negotiating table or even what
    was reported back to the board in closed session by its negotiating team.
    Everything I know is based on public statements and media reports.

    Finally, as the husband of an excellent teacher, I don’t
    begrudge any teacher a single dollar of what he or she makes. It’s important
    and difficult work. I would love to live in a country where teachers were
    compensated at the same level as other professionals — doctors and lawyers, for
    instance. I’d also like to live in a country where there were enough good
    teachers to realize the instructional needs of all students, including those
    with significantly varied learning styles who might benefit from new or
    non-traditional instruction. Unfortunately, that is not the country in which we
    live. That said, we are very lucky to be in a town that continues to strive for
    both ideals, and comes as close as possible, given the various constraints and
    other realities.

    — Tim Quinn

  • @tkq

    Thank
    you for attending board meetings, Mr. Dodge. I know Mr. Montgomery as a regular
    at full board meetings; in addition, he attends just about every meeting of the
    Student Achievement Committee, where discussions center on instruction.

    I’d like to address your first point if I could because, to my thinking, the
    administrator settlement has been used to advance the false narrative that the
    board doesn’t respect teachers. And what you’ve written about retirements is
    just not accurate. I’m sure you’ve heard board members say that the board deals
    in dollars, not in percentages. You’re correct in noting that the cost of the
    administrators raise was less that the amount a similar percentage increase
    would have. What you don’t point out is what was reported in public: the dollar
    amounts are significantly different. The 2.4 percent raise amounted to $75,000
    spread among 20 or so administrators. As reported in public, 2.4 percent for
    all members of PREA would total somewhere in the neighborhood of $725,000, an
    amount close to the total budget increase allowable under the 2 percent cap.

    Your statement about retirements makes it sound as if the board pooled all of the
    money that would have been used to pay retiring teachers and handed that amount
    over to administrators. Stated that way, this is just not accurate. In fact, as
    few as two retirements among the one-third of teachers who earn more than
    $90,000 per year (or the 53 or teachers whose salaries exceed $100,000) would
    have covered the entire cost of the administrator contract.

    I think it’s worth noting that the administrator contract was for one year and it
    expires at the end of the school year. Realizing that a new superintendent was
    starting mid-year, sometime in the late fall of 2013, the board approached both
    bargaining units to negotiate one-year contracts to give our new superintendent
    time to get to know the district without the demands of contract talks. PREA
    exercised its right to decline to negotiate a one-year deal, opting to
    negotiate a multi-year deal at a later date.

    As for the nature of these negotiations themselves, I’m afraid I can’t offer any
    insights. As you heard me say each month, I had no role in negotiations because
    my wife is a member of another NJEA local. As such, I was not privy to what
    happened at the negotiating table or even what was reported back to the board
    in closed session by its negotiating team. Everything I know is based on public
    statements and media reports.

    Finally, as the husband of an excellent teacher, I don’t begrudge any teacher a single dollar of what he or she makes. It’s important and difficult work. I would love
    to live in a country where teachers were compensated at the same level as other
    professionals — doctors and lawyers, for instance. I’d also like to live in a
    country where there were enough good teachers to realize the instructional
    needs of all students, including those with significantly varied learning
    styles who might benefit from new or non-traditional instruction methods.
    Unfortunately, that is not the country in which we live. That said, we are very
    lucky to be in a town that continues to strive for both ideals, and comes as
    close as possible, given the various constraints and other realities.

    — Tim Quinn

  • Rod Montgomery

    What I questioned *here* was Mr. Dodge’s *description* of what the consultant is being hired to do. My reservations about Strategic Planning, which I expressed at the BoE meeting, are a separate matter.

  • Martha Friend

    Unless I’m remembering incorrectly ,Mr. Montgomery, at the last BOE meeting it seemed to be YOU who was questioning the value of PPS Strategic Planning so I do wonder now why you are chastising Mr. Dodge for questioning the same thing. YOU were questioning the value of Strategic Planning itself and Mr. Dodge is questioning the financial cost to the district. It does make one now wonder if all of your “assertions and speculations are equally questionable.”

  • Rod Montgomery

    Mr. Dodge’s claim, that the State Mediator is costing $1,500/day, is questionable. This story

    http://www.towntopics.com/wordpress/2014/11/26/parents-chide-board-of-education-preadistrict-meet-with-mediator/

    says in part, “Mediator services are provided by the state at no cost to the district, but if no agreement is reached in mediation, a fact-finder would be called in at a cost of $1,500 per day. The cost of a fact-finder would be split between the two parties.”

    His assertion that “the School District plans to hire a consultant to “listen” to people and set goals for the future” is also at variance with reality. The consultant’s purpose, according to the Superintendent’s presentation at the Board meeting of 3 February, is to help the District with “Strategic Planning”, a process for setting long-term goals and making plans to achieve them. The consultant isn’t going to be doing all the listening and certainly not the goal-setting, just helping the Board and administrators listen, make better use of what they hear and set goals more realistically and effectively.

    How many of Mr. Dodge’s other assertions and speculations are equally questionable?

    As for priorities: Peter Drucker, long ago, observed that setting priorities is easy; it’s setting posteriorities — deciding what *not* to do — that’s hard.

    And as Thomas Edison observed, vision without execution is hallucination.

    Mr. Dodge, and other parents, may want to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes, but that can’t happen, no matter how the current conflict with the teachers’ union turns out. The money just isn’t there, and it’s not going to be. The number of students per teacher is going to have to go up, not down. The parents, the Board, the administrators, the teachers and the students are going to have to figure out how to cope with that. Wishes for what cannot be, no matter how often repeated, aren’t going to produce useful results.

    That doesn’t mean student achievement can’t improve.

    It might be possible to reduce class sizes in key classes, but only if some way can be found to replace high school classes taught by expensive tenured or tenure-track teachers with some less expensive mode of learning — perhaps using technology, perhaps in student-run study groups — for a substantial fraction of what is now “class” time.

    It may also be possible to use methods such as Professor Eric Mazur’s “Peer Instruction” to get equal or better high school student achievement even with larger classes, at least in some courses. “Calibrated peer review” might give high school and middle school students “detailed assistance and comments” on their writing with less teacher time.

    We won’t know unless we try, and we won’t try if we fixate on fantasies.

  • Rob Dodge

    Thank you Tim for starting up a conversation. It’s difficult to make progress with set speeches and with the Board unable to respond. Here are some of the things I
    find startling:

    1. The members of the School Board voted to use funds saved from the salaries of teachers who had retired and give that money to administrators as a raise. I understand that because there are fewer administrators, the cost of their raise was less than a raise for the teachers, but the effect on the individuals is the same. An administrator gets a raise but a teacher does not get offered a comparable raise.

    Is hierarchy playing a role here? Is the Board playing its proper role as one of the legs supporting the organization — management, staff, teachers, students, parents, the Board — with a balance of power between all legs ensuring the healthiest organization.

    2. The members of the School Board refuse to speak with John Baxter and the PREA negotiating team. The Board speaks through a lawyer and a State Mediator at $1,500 per day. Why not have direct communication with the teachers? Putting lawyers and mediators into the process costs money and prevents open discussion.

    3. More recently, the School District plans to hire a consultant to “listen” to people and set goals for the future. Is the Board listening to the countless students, teachers, and parents that are speaking (for free) month after month about their priorities (teachers in classrooms before school, student clubs meetings, and school trips).

    My priority is to spend more money on teachers and smaller class sizes in the Middle and High Schools. Many of the core classes at these combined schools approach 30 students, too big for effective teaching and learning. In addition, English teachers’ class load has increased from 4 to 5 classes a day, and English teachers have roughly 125 students making it impossible for detailed assistance and comments on students writing. Is this contributing to the relatively lower reading/writing SATs (and other standardized tests) at the high school as compared to the higher scores in the math sections of the test?

    As someone who has interviewed and made hiring decisions on dozens of applicants over the last decade, the number one reason why people do not get jobs is poor writing or communicating skills. Technology changes, science advances but fundamental writing and communication skills that should be taught in Middle and High Schools will stay with a student their whole lives.

    Robert
    Dodge

Events Calendar

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Sat 16
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Santa Comes to Kale’s Garden Center

December 16 @ 10:00 am - 4:00 pm
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Palmer Square Winter Wonderland and Photo Workshop

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T-Connect Trans Youth Group

December 16 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
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Chanukah Celebration at Adath Israel

December 16 @ 5:30 pm - 7:00 pm
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Princeton Symphony Orchestra Holiday POPS! Concert

December 16 @ 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm
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Screening: It’s a Wonderful Life

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Events Calendar

« December 2017 » loading...
M T W T F S S
27
28
29
30
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
Sat 16
Sat 16

Santa Comes to Kale’s Garden Center

December 16 @ 10:00 am - 4:00 pm
Sat 16

Palmer Square Winter Wonderland and Photo Workshop

December 16 @ 1:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Sat 16

T-Connect Trans Youth Group

December 16 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
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