October 29, 2014

Mediator Needed for Teachers Contract Negotiations Between District and PREA

Members of the teachers’ union and Princeton Public School Board of Education (BOE) met October 22 for a last ditch attempt to thrash out a new teachers’ contract. It was the 11th time the two sides had met since April and the last before mediation sessions are scheduled to begin in November.

Their previous bargaining session on October 2 ended with a walk-out by union representatives. The talks are intended to form a new contract to replace the 2011-14 contract that expired June 30. Since that time, the district’s teachers have been working under the expired agreement.

The costs of healthcare and salaries continue to be the stumbling block to progress.

After the October 22 meeting the union’s chief negotiator, John Baxter, had this to say: “The Board has told us on numerous occasions, including last night, that they ‘hear us’ on salary and premium contributions. They may hear us, but last night they chose not to respond constructively. The Board has now changed its proposal to five years at Tier 4 premium contribution rates; the Board chose not to move towards a contract but rather moved us farther away. Rather than make concessions, rather than move towards a middle ground where agreements are reached, the Board requested even more from PPS educators.”

At the October 22 meeting, the Board proposed that the new contract run for five years, to expire June 30, 2019. According to Board member Andrea Spalla, it was hoped that by lengthening the parties’ collectively bargained agreement, a longer period of labor peace would ensue, with a concomitant reduction in disruption to the operations of the schools.

The Board proposed “aggregate annual salary increases as follows: 2 percent in year 1; 1.8 percent in year 2; 1.9 percent in year 3; 2 percent in year 4; and 2 percent in year 5.”

According to Mr. Baxter, this offer “continues to be a devalued salary guide. They increased from 1.8 to 2 percent in year one and from 1.86 to 1.9 percent in year three — a .2 and a .04 increase — if we accept all their other proposals,” he said.

According to PREA, the Board appeared to make concessions on some proposals such as the open-ended length of the workday at the high school. “But when asked for confirmation they said ‘no,’ all previous proposals, even those not in the document they presented [that] night, are not withdrawn but still on the table,” said Mr. Baxter, clearly frustrated.

“Despite the Board’s divisive proposals, the PREA offered a major concession on health care,” said, Mr. Baxter, adding that the PREA’s new proposal “will yield greater annual savings in health care premiums than the Board’s proposal. In addition to savings, the PREA proposal does much more to maintain the level of health care coverage whereas the Board’s proposal reduces coverage for PPS educators. The Board acknowledged the positive significance of the PREA’s proposal. They did not, however, counter-offer.”

In a statement to Town Topics, the Board said: “The Board proposed that in order to reduce PREA members’ healthcare premium costs, PREA members would pay a total annual deductible of $100 (for employees with single, parent/child or member/spouse coverage levels) or $200 (for employees with family coverage levels); and that PREA members’ co-payment amounts would increase from current levels of $10 per visit to $15 for doctor visits and $20 for specialist visits. Currently PREA members have no deductibles. All wellness visits, by law, would continue to be free and not subject to co-pays. For these modest increases in deductible and co-pay amounts, each employee would see meaningful reductions in their individual premium costs in each paycheck.”

“It appears that the parties remain at an impasse,” said Jennifer Lea Cohan of the new group Community for Princeton Public Schools. “This is disappointing news, and we hope that, with the help of mediation, they will find common ground for the good of all involved.”

A somewhat more optimistic member of the district’s BOE, Andrea Spalla, said, “Last week’s meeting may not have resulted in an agreement — yet — but we feel it marked some progress, from both teams, towards a shared solution.”

Further talks facilitated by state-appointed mediator Kathy Vogt, Esq. begin November 20.

Ms. Vogt is no stranger to the district. She assisted with negotiations for the 2011-14 contract.

The Board of Education held a public meeting last night after Town Topics press deadline.