June 18, 2014

Teachers Contract Negotiations Stalled, Mediation on Horizon

Negotiations between the Princeton Public Schools (PPS), Board of Education (BOE), and representatives of the Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA) reached an impasse when representatives of both sides met June 10.

“The negotiating team came to the conclusion that the best way to move both sides toward agreement was to bring in a third party mediator,” said Princeton Schools Superintendent Steve Cochrane. “The first step in securing a mediator is to file for impasse. We formally filed for impasse late in the afternoon on June 12.”

The Board and the teachers’ union is due to meet again on June 30, which is the date when the current teachers’ contract expires. Since it can take up to 60 days for a mediator to be scheduled, Mr. Cochrane said that “filing sooner rather than later was the right action to take to help ensure we achieve a settlement before students and teachers return to classrooms in the fall.”

If called upon, a mediator would be provided by the state at no cost to the District. If however, no agreement is reached in mediation, a fact-finder would be called in at a cost of $1,500 per day, split between the two parties. According to BOE negotiator Patrick Sullivan, 40 percent of school negotiations in New Jersey go to mediation.

At the crux of the impasse, Mr. Sullivan said Monday, is Chapter 78, which Governor Christie signed into law in 2011 as part of state pension and health benefit reform, and which makes teachers pay a higher portion of their health costs. “They are paying a higher percentage each year because of Chapter 78 and they want the District to reimburse them for these costs,” explained Mr. Sullivan. “This, we cannot do. Not only would it put a burden on the District that is already strapped by a 2 percent cap, but our attorney advises that any such reimbursement would circumvent the law. It would be illegal.”

“Even if we could circumvent Chapter 78, we don’t have the money to both give a pay increase and to reimburse health care costs. The only way to do this would be to make cuts to staff, including teachers, and we don’t want to do this,” he said.

But according to Teachers’ Union negotiator John Baxter, the BOE has got its facts wrong when it comes to Chapter 78. “N.J. law, Chapter 78 rates were imposed for a limited period of four years, ending June 2015 for Princeton. The BOE wants to continue them indefinitely,” said Mr. Baxter in an email statement. “The BOE should negotiate contribution rates that make sense for Princeton Public Schools; not rates designed and imposed by Governor Christie and the New Jersey legislature.”

Mr. Baxter and the PREA also take issue with the Board’s figures, citing a news release issued by the Board last week, claiming that the district’s health care costs are going up by “over 12 percent this year.” The union pointed out that this number did not fit with the board’s claim that all employee health costs would increase by 6.4 percent. The Board later acknowledged its mistake and issued an amended release.

Even so, Mr. Baxter questions the Board’s figures. “The Board’s revised press release continues to give the impression that their cost for PREA health benefits will be going up ‘by much more than 2 percent each year,’” he said. “The fact is the cost to the Board has been decreasing as PREA members have been contributing more.”

According to the teachers’ union, “the amount the Board will be spending in 2014-15 is roughly 7 percent less than what they spent on PREA health benefits three years ago in 2011-12: their cost has decreased from $5,636,146 to $5,222,769. In other words, none of the 2 percent increase in the 2014-15 budget is going to be spent on PREA health care benefits, not one penny.”

PREA members will contribute between 14 and 35 percent next year, an average of 24 percent, which is above what “most Americans contribute,” said Mr. Baxter, who offered the table, shown on this page, based upon numbers provided by the Board during the negotiation process.

The sides are also divided with respect to a proposal by the Board for a High Deductible Health Plan/Health Savings Account.

Even after six meetings, however, the BOE is hopeful that some compromise will be reached. “We are committed to continuing to meet with the association. We believe bringing in a third party mediator will help us move forward. In the meantime, we look forward to our next meeting with PREA on June 30,” said Molly Chrein, one of three Board members on the negotiating team.