November 26, 2014

Parents Chide Board of Education, PREA/District Meet With Mediator

Representatives of the teachers’ union, Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA) and the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education (BOE) sat down with state-appointed mediator Kathy Vogt, Esq. last Thursday.

Ms. Vogt helped bring both sides together in negotiations for the 2011-14 contract, which expired June 30 but continues in operation until the terms and conditions can be agreed upon. She met separately with each side.

The mediator was called in after a long series of bargaining sessions had failed to reach an agreement. Things got so bad that on October 2, the meeting was brought to a halt when members of the PREA negotiating team walked out.

Negotiations had stalled repeatedly over the issues of health care and salary increases, the most significant stumbling block to forward movement being a profound disagreement over the intent and impact of NJ law Chapter 78. The crux of the issue is whether premium contributions are subject to collective bargaining under the Chapter 78 law. PREA contends that, after this year, premium contributions are subject to collective bargaining.

The union has announced that as of December 1 its members will stop donating their time to non-paid extra-curricular activities and volunteer work. The action would affect some after-school student clubs and student trips, activities to which teachers contribute their own time as opposed to activities for which they get paid.

On its Facebook page, the union posted an open letter to parents explaining the action to not “perform or participate in activities, including their planning, for which we are not compensated and that extend beyond the school day.”

Princeton’s teachers will, however, continue to write letters of recommendation for students.

The mediation session came after parents had expressed disapproval of the BOE’s ongoing failure to come to an agreement at last week’s meeting, which took place in the Performing Arts Auditorium at Princeton High School because so many parents and teachers were expected to attend as had been the case at the meeting in October.

“I am dismayed by the contentious negotiations between the Board and PREA,” said resident Abigail Rose at the meeting. “This prolonged process has led to diminished morale among teachers and has had a direct impact on student learning and extra-curricular activities. I urge the Board to fairly prioritize, recognize, and compensate our outstanding teachers, both to keep those already here and to continue to attract the best.”

Resident Amy Goldstein expressed anger at the Board for jeopardizing children’s education. She suggested that such parental displeasure had resulted in the failure of the only incumbent to be elected in the recent election. Addressing the entire membership, she said “Princeton is not happy with you, you need to listen to your teachers and to your town.”

However, one local resident suggested a possible solution to the negotiation stalemate. “I don’t see the money to satisfy all the economic desires of the teachers,” said Rod Montgomery. “With costs going up while revenues do not, the only way to survive the squeeze is to make teachers more productive.” He asked whether technology might be used to make that possible through increasing class sizes and perhaps having students teach each other.

After Thursday’s mediated session, BOE negotiator Patrick Sullivan said “While we just began the process with the mediator, we were encouraged by the tone of discussions, and both sides were able to frankly exchange not only their views and positions, but also on the reasoning that underlies them.”

Chair of the PREA Negotiations Team John J. Baxter was less positive (see his letter in this week’s Mailbox). “There was no indication of any change in the Board’s positions at the meeting on the 20th,” he said. “The mediator, of course, needed to use that meeting largely to acquaint herself with the teams’ positions and the major issues.”

Two more mediated sessions are planned for December 9 and January 14. “We are confident that we will continue to make progress on the issues on which we still remain apart,” said Mr. Sullivan.

Mediator services are provided by the state at no cost to the district, but if no agreement is reached in mediation, a fact-finder would be called in at a cost of $1,500 per day. The cost of a fact-finder would be split between the two parties.