Stripping Tenure a Chore in N.J.

Barbara Martinez | The Wall Street Journal

As executive director of security for the Paterson, N.J., school system, one of James Smith’s jobs is to try to remove teachers accused of wrongdoing from the district. That, combined with his 25 years in the Paterson Police Department, has taught him an important lesson: Trying to get rid of teachers is “10 times more difficult than any criminal case I’ve ever worked on,” he said.

One recent case the retired police captain points to is that of a special-education teacher who for years had been accused by students, parents and other teachers of hitting students. The case dragged on for four years and cost Paterson more than $400,000 to finally get the teacher dismissed. That included more than $280,000 the teacher collected in salary (even though he was no longer working) while the case was argued.

Few in New Jersey attempt what Mr. Smith does. In 2008, the last year for which the state Department of Education provides statistics, only 35 tenure cases were filed in the state. Nineteen resulted in the loss of tenure. There are more than 120,000 teachers in the state, and more than 600 school districts. Paterson is one of the state’s largest districts, with 52 schools and 24,000 students.

Mr. Smith, 55 years old, estimates that he has filed one to two tenure charges a year—usually in cases where teachers won’t resign when confronted with his allegations.

He said he stands out because he employs his police skills, and said it would be hard for principals to know how to do the same. “Just like I wouldn’t know what the benchmarks are for reading in the fourth grade,” Mr. Smith said, most school districts lack the expertise to successfully dismiss teachers.

For one, witnesses have to be found and interviewed. Sometimes, he said, they are afraid to come forward. In those cases, he uses what he calls his “people skills,” assuring the witnesses—whether fellow teachers, students or parents—that he will “be there for them every step of the way” when they testify.

Setting up a winnable tenure case means gathering irrefutable evidence, much as in a criminal investigation. Mr. Smith leaves no stone unturned—even traveling out of state to interview retired employees who may have witnessed a teacher’s actions.

“People don’t realize what goes into it,” he said.

Sometimes, he sets up surveillance stakeouts. In one recent case, a teacher was being paid by the district to give lessons at home for two hours a day to a special-needs child who was bedridden. In fact, Mr. Smith said his videographer caught her dropping by for only a few minutes, then heading home or to a store. Another time, cameras caught a teacher who was out with back pain working vigorously in his yard.

The tenure issue is heating up in New Jersey.

Gov. Chris Christie has made it a subject he wants to tackle in the coming year—making tenure more difficult to get and easier to lose. Currently, teachers in New Jersey get tenure after three years on the job.

The state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, proposed its own tenure-reform plan this month, saying that if the state would agree to use arbitrators rather than the courts, the process would go much faster and be less costly. Mr. Christie said the plan didn’t go far enough. The state Senate’s education chairwoman is considering introducing legislation that would revamp tenure.

“School districts shouldn’t need to have the modern-day version of Sherlock Holmes to make sure our kids are being taught by the best teachers we can give them,” said Kathleen Nugent, New Jersey state director of Democrats for Education Reform. “The fact that most district leaders are forced to pretend the problem doesn’t exist is a sure sign the system is broken.”

Mr. Smith—whom most people in his office and around town call “captain”—was born and raised in Paterson. As a police officer in the 1990s, he was sent to Kennedy High School, from which he had graduated, after several incidents involving students bringing guns.

In 2002, Mr. Smith was brought in as security director during an overhaul sparked by a wilding spree in which students killed a homeless man. He didn’t think he would be handling tenure cases until two weeks into the job, when a teacher was accused of sexual activities with students. Mr. Smith launched tenure charges to strip the teacher of her license at the same time she was facing criminal charges.

It was then that he learned how long and onerous the cases can be.

In one recent case, a teacher resigned more than a year after being arrested for purchasing drugs from a former student. The teachers union paid for the teacher’s legal representation, as is the case generally when teachers are accused of wrongdoing. The teacher got paid for most of the time between his arrest in April 2009 and his resignation in June 2010.

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