One Year After State Tenure Overhaul, Participants Optimistic About New Process

August 8, 2013

Jersey City public-school teachers have not fared well under the state’s tenure overhaul, which Gov. Chris Christie signed into law one year ago this week.

Under the new rules, which allow an arbitrator instead of a judge to make an essentially final decision on whether a tenured teacher can be fired, four Jersey City teachers have been fired based on arbitrators' rulings.

Three of the four were terminated because of excessive absenteeism, with one School 23 teacher missing 338 days from 2002 to 2011, according to the arbitrator’s ruling. A School 20 teacher missed 600 days, about 10 percent of her 37 years with the district, the arbitrator in that case wrote.

All four terminated teachers taught special education, and most were taken to task by arbitrators for their behavior. In one instance, an arbitrator said the teacher was "a disruptive force in every school she was assigned to."

The new rules, which were supported by the powerful state teachers union and hailed by Christie, speed up the process used to fire a tenured teacher. Before, it could take a year for a district to terminate a teacher; now, the arbitrator’s decision must be delivered in 90 days.

Ron Greco, president of teachers union the Jersey City Education Association, said he hasn’t heard any complaints about the new tenure system from teachers. Overall, Greco said, he supports it.

“My opinion, I think the quicker the better,” he said. “Expediting the process is the right way to go.”

Of the 25 arbitrator rulings made public since last August, seven are for teachers who worked in Newark, four in Jersey City and two in Bridgeton. No other school district made the list more than once.

Michelle Gibbs, who formerly worked for a number of Jersey City schools, including Ferris High School, was the only one of the four fired for reasons unrelated to absences. Gibbs was sacked for unbecoming conduct, neglect of duty and negative conduct toward staff, according to the arbitrator's ruling in that case.

The nine-page decision, released in May, details a pattern of bizarre behavior as Gibbs was transferred from school to school. The arbitrator in her case, Edmund Gerber, called her “a disruptive force” wherever she worked.

At School 37, she told a class of 7 to 8 year-old students in 2011 that she had recently had a heart attack so she may collapse in class, adding, "but not to worry," the ruling reads. At School 28 the following year, she told a fellow teacher in front of a classroom of children that she found the teacher's eyes "tantalizing" but that she was "not a homosexual," according to the ruling.

Meanwhile, Gibbs left a classroom without telling the teacher she was shadowing that day "In her absence," the ruling reads, "the class became agitated to the point (the second teacher) had to be escorted to the nurse" and in another instance told a special education student to write faster, according to the ruling.

Gibbs could not be reached to comment. In the arbitrator’s ruling, she denied most of the accusations against her. Her attorney, Nancy Oxfeld, said her experience with tenure overhaul is mostly positive, though she’s concerned about its cap on arbitrator pay.

“At some point, arbitrators are not going to want to do the big cases,” Oxfeld said.