Tally of Teacher Tenure Cases Shows New Law has had Impact

November 5, 2013

The first year of New Jersey’s new tenure law has so far resulted in a much quicker process for deciding discipline charges against teachers, while established case law has still largely determined the outcomes.

At least that’s the interpretation of an attorney who has summarized and analyzed the approximately 40 tenure cases brought before state arbitrators so far under the Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey Act (TEACHNJ).

Carl Tanksley of the law firm of Parker McCay presented a summary of the first 23 of those tenure decisions at last month’s New Jersey School Boards Association convention in Atlantic City.

He said that from his perspective as an attorney representing school boards, the process has pretty much worked as intended. Tanksley’s firm represents about 80 districts, mostly in southern and central New Jersey.

“I think there are a couple of bugs to work through, but overall it’s an improvement over the old process,” he said yesterday.

Tanksley noted that the tenure decisions have come in all shapes and sizes, as the 25 state-certified arbitrators selected under the law each using their own style and wording in making decisions. But he said his review found that the arbitrators have largely followed legal precedents.

“The formats of the rulings are all over the place, but from a substantive standpoint, there is a consistency to the rulings and they have pretty much fallen in line with (previous) commissioner rulings,” Tanksley said.

The law signed in August 2012 established new rules for how and when teachers are evaluated and receive tenure protections. It also created a new process in which state arbitrators decide contested cases.

Previously, tenure charges went through the state administrative law courts and ultimately were decided by the state education commissioner, in a process that could take years to resolve, often at great expense.

Under the new law, the sample size of cases decided by arbitrators is still small, especially cases where teachers are brought up on charges of poor or ineffective performance, technically called “inefficiency.”

Regarding those types of cases, Tanksley’s summary found that the few decisions have been nearly evenly divided between those decided on behalf of districts and those decided on behalf of teachers. Of seven such cases, four went in favor of the districts. In three of those four decisions, the teacher’s tenure was terminated. In the cases that the teachers won, two were reinstated with back pay while the other still saw a salary raise withheld.

Tanksley acknowledged his school-board bias, but said the system also worked in those decisions made in favor of the teachers.

“I may not have agreed with all of it, but there was a rationale provided … (and) it was supported by the facts,” he said.

There have been far more charges of misconduct heard under the new law, and those cases have gone overwhelmingly in favor of school districts, with 15 of 17 cases in which charges were upheld, according to Tanksley’s summary. The summary did not include three recent decisions on misconduct charges, two of which were found in favor of the school districts.

He said the biggest improvement was the speed with which the cases were handled, which was a key aim of the new law. The law requires the assignment of cases to an arbitrator within roughly two months, hearings on the charges within 45 days after that, and a decision within another 45 days.

That has its down side, as it limits testimony and arguments on both sides, Tanksley said. But by moving cases more speedily and efficiently, “ultimately the districts save money,” he said.