July 9, 2014

With No New Contract,Teachers’ Union Talks Will Continue This Month

Princeton’s school teachers are working under an expired contract since no agreement has as yet been reached on a new one for the next three years. Talks took place between the Board of Education (BOE) and the Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA) June 30, as members of the teachers’ union marched in front of the district offices on Valley Road. Teachers carried hand-lettered placards expressing their case for increased pay and health benefits.

According to PREA negotiator John Baxter, Tuesday’s four-and-a-half-hour talk resulted in “very little significant progress and no progress whatsoever on the main topics of health care and salary.”

Expressing disappointment that “the Board was unprepared to make a new proposal on either health care or salary” in spite of the fact that his team had expressed willingness to consider any cost savings proposals and again suggested that the Board not disregard the possible merits of the State Employees Health Benefits Plan, Mr. Baxter said that the Board “agreed to have some new proposals or concepts to present at the next meeting.”

One stumbling block to progress, according to Mr. Baxter is that “the Board continues to maintain that the amount of teachers’ contributions to health care premiums for the years 2015-16 and 2016-17 are non-negotiable.”

“We again expressed our disagreement, and pointed out that the Board’s position restricts the options of both sides for proposals and counter proposals, perhaps making it more difficult to reach a fair contract. We requested that the Board provide us with a copy of the legal opinion upon which they are basing their refusal to bargain contributions,” said Mr. Baxter.

“The Board agreed that the administrators’ contributions for these same two years will be a negotiable topic when the Board bargains with the union for the administrators in roughly six months,” said Mr. Baxter, adding that as of July 1, this year PREA members have given up two health care plans, saving the district over $300,000.

District negotiator Patrick Sullivan, however, begs to differ on this claim. “Not exactly,” he said. “The terms of PREA’s expired contract (collectively bargained and ratified by them two years ago) provided that the two most expensive health plans would sunset at the end of the contract. All employees on those sunsetting plans were to move to another plan that is already on offer. The sunsetting of those plans was an agreed upon term of the last contract negotiation, and is not related to any issues in the current negotiation. So this is not a matter of PREA being accommodating in any way, nor is it actually a ‘saving.’ These terms were fully negotiated in the prior contract and were anticipated by both sides.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Sullivan described the recent talks as resulting in “significant progress agreeing on work-related issues in the new contract. We still remain apart on issues related to salary and benefits; however we are optimistic that with continued discussions we can reach a contract.”

In this respect, Mr. Baxter expressed guarded agreement: “We were able to come to agreement on contract language for the pro-rated number of sick and personal days for new hires who begin employment after the start of the school year and for the use of accumulated unused personal days. This was a simple matter of clarifying and formalizing in the contract the practices currently utilized by central administration.”

Negotiations between teachers and the school district reached an impasse June 10 over health benefit contributions, among other issues, but as yet negotiations are to continue without mediation. The two sides will talk further during the third week of July.