May 27, 2015

No Teacher Contract as District Approves Terms With Administrators, Support Staff

The Princeton Public School’s Board of Education approved new three-year contracts with two of the district’s three employee associations at a special meeting in the Valley Road administration building May 20.

Contracts were made with the Princeton Regional Support Staff Association (PRESSA), which represents instructional aides, custodians, bookkeepers, and secretaries, and with the Princeton Administrators’ Association (PAA) which represents principals, assistant principals, and supervisors. Both contracts will replace those due to expire June 30.

Superintendent Steve Cochrane described the negotiations with PRESSA as “a model of positive and productive labor relations.” Of those with PAA, he said he appreciated the “leadership’s positive, professional, and efficient approach.”

Conspicuously absent from successful completion, is a contract with teachers’ union Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA), which has been in lengthy and contentious negotiation since it expired July 1 last year.

Since last fall, talks have been facilitated by state-appointed mediator, Kathy Vogt. But after the two sides failed again to reach agreement Monday, May 4, Ms. Vogt referred the matter for fact-finding to the New Jersey Public Employees Relations Commission, a stage in the process that Board President Andrea Spalla described as “costly and lengthy.”

Similar to non-binding arbitration, the fact-finding process involves a formal hearing before a neutral “factfinder,” who eventually issues recommendations for settlement.

“The process may take anywhere from six to 12 months,” said Lewis Goldstein, assistant superintendent for human resources in a press statement from the district.

According to Mr. Goldstein, mediation is provided to the parties free of charge but a factfinder can charge between $1600 and 2500 per day; a cost that would be split equally between the parties.

At the special meeting and in a press release afterward, details of the Board’s latest offer to the PREA were made public, now that neither side is bound by the mediator’s confidentiality agreement. In response, PREA representative and chief negotiator John Baxter sent a statement to Town Topics. “The Board of Education’s agenda for last night’s meeting contained just two items: ratification of the contract with PRESSA and ratification of the contract with PAA. Board President Andrea Spalla and Superintendent Steve Cochrane, however, spent much of the meeting talking about what wasn’t on the agenda — the negotiations with PREA. When questioned about the propriety of this conduct, Mr. Cochrane explained that sometimes items not on the agenda come up in discussion during the course of a board meeting. This did not serve to explain the powerpoint presentation on the negotiations with PREA, obviously planned for use during the meeting.”

According to the district, the Board’s most recent offer to PREA was structured almost identically to that with PRESSA and included “an aggregate increase in compensation at the effective rates of 2.44 percent in year one (retroactive to July 1, 2014), 2.87 percent in year 2 and 2.79 percent in year 3 of the new contract. The Board’s offer was contingent on PREA members remaining at their current Chapter 78 premium contribution levels and implementing cost-saving measures similar to those agreed to by the other two unions.”

According to Mr. Baxter, “the Board’s effort to unfairly portray the PREA as unreasonable was blatant both during the meeting and in the Board’s press release. The PREA did not refuse to meet again as the Board has characterized the termination of talks on May 4.”

Furthermore, said Mr. Baxter, “The Board’s last proposal included two major inequities: it advanced some educators on the salary guide ahead of others with more experience; and it denied health care relief for others because they were hired within the past four years. We have been negotiating since March, 2014. The time has come for proposals that will get the job done — not proposals that are divisive and that the Board should know we can not take to our members for ratification.”

Of Superintendent Steve Cochrane’s comment, made during the meeting, that the Board remains open to communications and returning to the negotiations table, Mr. Baxter said “We know that is true. What he didn’t tell the public is that it was PREA who reached out to him on May 7 and initiated that conversation.”