Leaders in the Princeton Public Schools expressed disappointment Tuesday night about the fact that a deal has not been reached with the teachers’ union and that contract negotiations have been referred to a state fact finder.
After the board and the union failed to reach an agreement at their last meeting on May 4, a state-appointed mediator referred the matter to the New Jersey Public Employees Relations Commission for fact-finding. The fact-finding process can take anywhere from six to 12 months.
Assistant Superintendent Lewis Goldstein said the fact-finding process costs between $1,600 and $2,500 per day. The cost is split between the school district and the union. The fact-finding phase is similar to non-binding arbitration. The process involves a formal hearing before a neutral “fact finder,” who then eventually issues a written report and non-binding recommendations for settlement. Teachers will continue to work under the terms of the expired contract, without a salary increase, until fact-finding is concluded and an agreement is reached.
School board leaders said Tuesday night that the teachers’ union, the Princeton Regional Education Association, was offered a deal similar to the options offered to administrators and support staff. Both unions have ratified new pacts with the district.
“The board increased its offer during the course of that May 4 meeting, indicated that it was eager to continue to negotiate that night, and offered the union a chance to meet again,” School Board President Andrea Spalla said. “Nevertheless, the union refused to counter the board’s latest offer and ultimately refused another meeting. I know that everyone on the board’s team was very disappointed and surprised that the PREA leadership decided to move the parties into the costly and lengthy fact-finding stage rather than making a counter-offer.”
Under the proposal made by the board negotiating team on May 4, teachers would receive an aggregate increase in compensation of about 2.44 percent in year one of the contract, which would be retroactive to July 1 of 2014. They would receive 2.87 percent in year two of the contract, and 2.79 percent in year three of the new contract. The board’s offer was contingent on union members remaining at their current Chapter 78 premium contribution levels and implementing cost-saving measures similar to those agreed to by the other two unions regarding health insurance deductibles. Support staff and administrators agreed to pay deductibles of $100 per staff member or $200 per family in network for the most popular insurance plan.
Superintendent Steve Cochrane said the board also proposed spending $175,000 a year for year two and year three of the proposed contract to be used to compensate employees in steps three through eight who were hired before the fall of 2011, in order to address inequities in the current salary guide.
John Baxter, the lead negotiator for the union, said he did not see the contracts negotiations with the Princeton Regional Education Association listed on the agenda. He criticized the board for only mentioning the board’s proposals and not discussing the concessions offered by the union. He questioned whether a give back that is part of the support staff contract is legal.
“We too remain open to further conversations,” he said of the possibility of continuing negotiations.
Asked during public comment about negotiations regarding health insurance deductibles, an administrator said he recalled that the union was willing to accept a deductible of $50 per person and $100 per family per year.
More than 107 teachers’ unions in the state have settled with their local school boards since last July, with no reductions in their Chapter 78 health insurance premium contribution levels, school officials said. They said the board’s latest offer to the Princeton Regional Education Association is close to or higher than average settlement rates around the state.