Doing the Math

Princeton Township Public Schools offers a template on what will most likely occur across many districts on the heels of Gov. Christie’s budget: an effort by school boards to cajole local unions into accepting contract concessions. With cuts of up to 5% of total school budgets, increases in health benefits, and annual salary increases ranging in the mid-4%, there’s no other way to find the money. Other costs – supplies, utilities, transportation – are not fungible.

A few quick facts about Princeton, a 3,500-student school district with sky-high test scores. The annual cost per pupil there is $18,340 compared to a state average of $15,168. (These are 2008-2009 figures from the state database.) The median teacher salary is $69,829 plus benefits. The state median salary is $59,545 plus benefits. Costs of benefits in Princeton come to 23% of each teacher’s salary.

So last week Princeton Superintendent Judith Wilson sent a letter to the Princeton Regional Education Association asking for concessions. (Here’s its 2008-2011 contract.) The union then issued what the Trenton Times calls an “ambiguous statement” saying “they would not be willing to discuss contract concessions but leaving the door open to ‘continuing discussions.’” That’s better than a flat “no,” though School Board President Alan Hegedus noted that “the union was putting its head in the sand in response to the fiscal emergency that the state is in."

While every high-spending district in NJ may not be able to boast Princeton’s academic achievements, every high-spending district in NJ will be able to commiserate with Princeton’s fiscal problems. There’s nowhere else to go but teacher salaries, which is precisely what Gov. Christie had in mind with Proposition 2.5%, and precisely why NJEA Boss Barbara Keshishian is in a lather. NJEA could show some real leadership right now by allow their local affiliates to reopen contract negotiations so that we maintain educational standards in Princeton and elsewhere. Imagine the fount of goodwill erupting from an over-taxed public, the outpouring of gratitude in store for a Union that demonstrates an unequivocal compassion for kids and an astute comprehension of fiscal necessity. It’s just math.