June 4, 2014

Board of Education and Teachers Union Lock Horns in Contract Negotiations

Members of the Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA), the union representing local teachers, and the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education (BOE) met yesterday, June 3, to negotiate a new contract to replace the current contract that is due to expire at the end of this month.

Together with representatives of the 370-member PREA, President Joanne Ryan and Chair of Negotiations John J. Baxter, the negotiators are Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane, Assistant Superintendent Lewis Goldstein, Business Administrator Stephanie Kennedy, BOE Vice President Andrea Spalla, and BOE members Molly Chrein and Patrick Sullivan.

They are due for another bargaining session next Tuesday, June 10. Both parties hope that a settlement can be reached by June 30.

If past history is anything to go by, that might be overly optimistic. The 2011-2014 contract took almost a year to negotiate and was not finalized until well into 2012. According to the New Jersey School Boards Association, such negotiations typically last 11 months. In Princeton, negotiations began on April 10, shortly after Stephen Cochrane succeeded Judith A. Wilson as superintendent of Princeton Public Schools.

In response to email queries yesterday, June 3, Mr. Baxter said that in addition to the usual issues of salary and health benefits, the BOE is proposing expansions in teachers’ hours as what amounts to a pay freeze. “The BOE is currently proposing no increase in base salary, i.e., a salary freeze, for the next three years. This freeze also extends to all positions related to extra-curricular activities, e.g., athletic coaches and club advisors,” he said.

With respect to health benefits, Mr Baxter said that a major concern is teacher contributions to premiums for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. “State mandated contributions, that commenced three years ago, will sunset for Princeton next year when we reach ‘Tier 4’ the highest contributions,” he explained. “The law provides that the issue of contributions then returns to the bargaining table. To date, the BOE has refused to negotiate this issue, insisting instead that the Tier 4 contribution rates continue indefinitely into the future.”

The PREA maintains that the School Board is misconstruing the current law regarding health benefit contributions by suggesting in the recent budget presentation that staff contributions to health benefits “will plateau” in 2014-15 and implying that such contributions will level off at a fixed rate.

“Not so,” said Mr. Baxter. “The law, which sunsets in June, provides that, following a year of paying Tier 4 rates, health benefit contributions become part of the parties’ collective negotiations.” After that, the amount of contributions is a negotiable item for future years of any contract, although it must be at least 1.5 percent of a teacher’s gross salary.

Schools Budget

Superintendent Steve Cochrane and Business Administrator/Board Secretary Stephanie Kennedy presented the 2014-15 schools budget at a public hearing on April 28. The Board adopted a budget of $86.9 million budget, up $1.7 million from last year. This year’s budget includes a school tax rate of $1.05 per $100 of assessed home value, up 3 cents from last year. The amount to be raised by taxation is $65.9 million, up $1.2 million from last year.

“The budget is always an important factor,” said Mr. Baxter. “In years such as this, when the BOE creates its budget prior to having a contract with the 370 members of the PREA, that cannot be allowed to be a fait accompli. In other words, the BOE cannot use the fact that it chose not to budget for a salary increase to dictate the terms of our contract for 2014-15. That is not negotiating.”

Cost saving measures outlined in the budget have “added to the feeling among PREA members that they are not respected,” said Mr. Baxter.

But, according to Mr. Sullivan, cost-saving measures enacted in order to balance the 2014-15 budget primarily affected items unrelated to PREA salaries and benefits. “The Board’s annual budget for the school district is limited by the state-mandated 2 percent cap on allowed annual increases. Salaries and benefits comprise the lion’s share (nearly 70 percent) of the Board’s budgets every year, and this year is no exception. So every provision of every contract to which the Board is a party, including its contracts with its employee associations, must fit within the Board’s approved 2014-15 budget and within the 2 percent cap in each year,” he said. “We are trying to collaborate with PREA to create structures that preserve coverage levels but that lower premiums, to our mutual benefit,” he said.

Teacher Demonstrations

Teachers protested the three-year pay freeze on May 27 with a march along Witherspoon Street before attending a public meeting of the School Board that evening in John Witherspoon Middle School. They also distributed flyers to parents as they dropped off their children outside Princeton’s public schools.

“The teachers certainly have a right to make their concerns known,” commented Mr. Sullivan. “The Board understands these concerns and has listened closely to the goals expressed by the PREA leadership in our negotiations. The Board’s proposals reflect our attempt to respond to and meet PREA’s stated goals, while keeping within our budget. We believe our proposals contain ‘wins’ for both sides, and we hope PREA will consider them seriously.”

The next meeting of the Board of Education will be Tuesday, June 17, at 8 p.m. at the Valley Road Administration Building.

After an agreement is reached, any new contract would take effect upon ratification by the parties’ respective memberships. Under state law, if a new contract is not finalized by July 1, the expired contract remains in effect until the new one is executed.