PRINCETON: Talks on early teacher contract unsuccessful

The Princeton Board of Education tried unsuccessfully to accelerate contract negotiations with the teachers union, a move designed to have one less item filling up the plate of the incoming superinte

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
   The Princeton Board of Education tried unsuccessfully to accelerate contract negotiations with the teachers union, a move designed to have one less item filling up the plate of the incoming superintendent who starts in January.
   Representatives of the school board and the roughly 370-member Princeton Regional Education Association, whose current deal will expire June 30, met last week and again Wednesday afternoon.
   Union president Joanne Ryan, a second-grade teacher at Littlebrook Elementary School, issued a statement afterward saying Wednesday’s meeting had been “very short and very disappointing.”
   The school board, she said, is unwilling to consider a multi-year contract. Instead, the district proposed a one-year deal.
   ”It was a fair effort on everyone’s part,” said outgoing Superintendent of Schools Judith A. Wilson in a phone interview Wednesday.
   Earlier in the day, school board member Andrea Spalla, a member of the board’s negotiating team that includes Ms. Wilson, said she was “hopeful” the two sides reach a new deal before the end of the year. She felt both sides would benefit by doing so.
   The failure to get a deal done, however, now means incoming Superintendent of Schools Stephen Cochrane will have to confront this issue as he takes over in the middle of the school year from Ms. Wilson. Appointed in October, he is due to start as of Jan.1.
   School Board president Timothy Quinn, commenting at Tuesday’s school board meeting, said Mr. Cochrane has been visiting schools, meeting regularly with Ms. Wilson and been in regular contact with school board members. He said officials expect a “seamless” transition.
   ”It would be great for the new superintendent to start his job in January without having to also begin negotiations with one of the unions,” Ms. Spalla said.
   In Princeton, accelerated contract talks happened in an identical situation Ms. Ryan said before Ms. Wilson started in 2005. The union and the district were able to negotiate a contract in 5½ hours with the thought of having one less thing for her to have to worry about before she took over.
   As part of health benefits reform in 2011, the state required teachers and other public employees to kick in more of their pay toward their medical coverage. Those contributions vary depending on an employee’s salary; the more an employee makes, the greater the percentage he or she has to pay toward those benefits.
   In the 2014-15 school year, top earners will contribute 35 percent. At the end of that school year, employee contributions could be negotiated again, based on a provision in state law.
   ”The PREA negotiations team had made clear that opening talks about health benefits contributions for years two and three of the upcoming contract was our top priority,” Ms. Ryan said in the statement.
   Had they been able to reach a deal, it would have been faster than the norm.
   Jeanette Rundquist, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said Wednesday that her organization’s data shows that it “takes 11 months on average for a teacher contract to be settled, from the first bargaining session to the ratification of the agreement.
   ”It’s not unheard of for a district to try to resolve a contract prior to expiration of a collective bargaining agreement,” she said.
   ”There are many factors that play into the timing of a settlement. In a handful of cases, a change in superintendent has been at least one of the factors.”
   It is unclear, at this point, if both sides are headed to a repeat of the protracted negotiations that took 12 months for them to reach the current contract. A deal was not reached until 2012, amid teacher demonstrations outside the district office and large numbers of teachers attending school board meetings.
   Aside from this, the board is due to have contract talks with the union for principals and administrators. The first meeting is scheduled for Nov. 26.