To the Editor:
This Tuesday, June 2nd, negotiators for the Princeton Board of Education and PREA, the teachers’ union, will meet one last time to try to agree on a contract before bringing in a costly fact-finder. A key outstanding issue is the manner in which the Board will compensate teachers for the rising cost of health insurance. We urge the Board to reduce teachers’ upfront premium contributions, as we believe this is the best protection against a repeat of this year’s corrosive negotiations.
Under Chapter 78, a 2011 state law, a Princeton teacher earning $78,000 a year (the 2014 average district salary) pays between 23% and 33% of his or her insurance premiums, reducing take-home pay by $4000 to $7500. These rates, combined with previously-agreed-to austerity measures, mean that some district teachers’ take-home pay is less now than it was eight or nine years ago.
To their credit, the Board has responded to this financial strain by offering to offset teachers’ premium contributions. But rather than reducing teachers’ paycheck deductions, the Board proposes salary stipends or reimbursements.
Why does this matter? Money is money. What difference does it make if the Board wants to give a stipend instead of reducing premium payments?
As it turns out, it makes a big difference. Since 2010, New Jersey has capped localities’ annual tax increases at 2%, roughly equivalent to inflation; voters must approve any amount over that limit. But the law also grants discretionary waivers for costs local officials can’t control, including health care. Each year since 2010, over 40% of New Jersey municipalities have used such exceptions to exceed the 2% limit. Even the current Princeton municipal budget is ~4% higher than last year’s, thanks partly to the health care waiver.
Money spent to reduce teachers’ premium contributions could help the district qualify for a health care waiver in the future, which the Board could choose to use or not. Stipends, in contrast, would not count towards a waiver, and would come from general funds. It’s not hard to imagine how this would play out in the next round of teacher contract negotiations. Health care relief would be pitted against the district’s other needs, producing more of the rancor and frustration we have witnessed over the past year.
As Princeton residents, we know that our property values – not to mention our quality of life – depend on the excellence of our public schools. Moreover, the cost of a health care waiver for the individual taxpayer need not be high. This spring, for instance, the Board used a $400,000 health care waiver that increased the property taxes on an $800,560 home (Princeton’s average assessed home value) by less than $39 a year. We consider this a small price to pay to safeguard the quality of our public education.