Although the Princeton Regional School District (PRS) and teachers in the system have been described as “being close to an agreement” on a new contract in the months since the previous contract ended on June 30, that goal remains elusive. At last week’s Board of Education meeting, comments by Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA) president Joann Ryan and other PREA members were deemed inconsistent with the evening’s agenda and out of order.
“Anyone attending the Board meeting on December 13 witnessed first-hand, the disrespectful treatment by Board of Education (BOE) President Rebecca Cox, as she attempted to quash comments from members having to do with negotiations claiming that it was not an agenda item,” said Ms. Ryan early this week. “The BOE President clearly commented on negotiations during item D of the agenda, the President’s Report,” she continued. “For her to try to shut down further discussions of negotiations by claiming it was not an agenda item, when she commented on negotiations during the President’s Report was disingenuous and disrespectful to the PREA membership.”
Teachers’ comments to the contrary, however, School Board President Rebecca Cox has asserted that “Teachers who are working with expired contracts are NOT working ‘without’ one.”
In a PRS statement released after the meeting last week, Ms. Cox pointed out that “Union members still have all of the protections and benefits of the expired contract,” noting, however, that “salaries have to remain at last years’ level until a new contract is ratified, and starting July 1, health-care contributions had to comply with new state law.”
Teachers came to last week’s meeting bearing signs like “Princeton Teachers Want to Settle Now.” “The PREA leadership is frustrated,” said Ms. Ryan on Tuesday evening. “We have heard the Board say publicly that they want to settle our contract and yet behind closed doors, there is no evidence of that fact. Instead of working collaboratively on a solution that is acceptable to both parties, the Board is demonstrating a disrespectful attitude toward our negotiations team and our entire membership.”
Ms. Cox’s statement emphasized the “new environment” in which school boards, teachers and community members now find themselves. The last time a contract was negotiated was in 2008, before the economy crashed, she noted. “The unemployment rate is still high, the economic recovery is fragile, and the state government continues to make major decisions that impact New Jersey’s school districts, sometimes in negative ways.”
“A lot of these changes are directly affecting our district,” continued Ms Cox. “Three years ago, the cap on the property-tax levy was twice as high, health-care contributions were lower, and raises statewide were double what they are today. Now we are in a new fiscal reality in the state, in the nation, and in the world. The state tax-levy cap is now 2 percent and recent settlements around the state reflect that. In contrast, three years ago the cap was 4 percent, and the settlement rate was about 4.5 percent.”
“Actions speak louder than words,” said Ms. Ryan. Quoting Superintendent Judy Wilson as having recently said that “‘We know that children’s levels of comfort, confidence, and trust matter every bit as much as academic achievement and excellent instruction,’” Ms. Ryan wondered about what “happens when trust and confidence in district leadership are lost? What happens to that ‘excellent education?’”
In the meantime, PREA members have begun daily after-school demonstrations on the sidewalk near the Valley Road Building, where the PRS administration is housed. “We want to make sure that we’re not forgotten,” said Littlebrook science teacher Martha Friend on Monday. Ms. Friend noted that groups of about 25 teachers from all the district schools would be taking turns each afternoon, excluding pre-holiday Fridays.
In the midst of contentiousness, both teachers and the district have expressed interest in working together. “PREA and the Board of Education should be partners, supporting this district of excellent teaching and learning for all our students,” said Ms. Ryan in her comments at last week’s meeting. “This is about all of us working together to reach a resolution,” Ms. Cox similarly observed in her press release. “We are ready with our proposals and looking forward to our next mediation session on January 5.”