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Newark Teacher First to Win Contested Case Under Tenure Law

State arbitrator cites glaring contradictions between ratings by school’s principal and written comments.

A state arbitrator has decided the first contested case under the state’s new tenure-reform law that involves a teacher’s classroom performance.

And speaking to some of the nuances and complexities of the new law,the decision did not go well for the high-profile district that has made teacher quality a centerpiece of its reforms.

Newark Public Schools this summer filed tenure charges against fourth-grade teacher Thomas Williams, claiming he was “inefficient” as a teacher -- using the law’s language for ineffective -- and backing up that claim by presenting a record of poor evaluations.

A teacher for 25 years in the district and suspended since the tenure charge, Williams contested the charge and maintained the district’s evaluation system was flawed and failed to meet the requirements of the new law -- the Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey Act (TEACHNJ).

In a quick judgment that is one of the hallmarks of the law’s new arbitration system, arbitrator David Gregory on Dec. 8 found on behalf of Williams, agreeing that the evaluations by his principal were contradictory and “egregiously irreconcilable.”

It was the second arbitrator’s decision filed since TEACHNJ went into effect this summer, directly tying job protection to teachers maintaining strong evaluations and streamlining the system for deciding contested cases.

The very first case involved a Vineland teacher fired after being arrested for running naked through an apartment complex parking lot. The arbitrator ruled in favor of the district. In that case, the teacher’s classroom performance did not come into question.

But the Newark case before Gregory, a St. John’s University law professor and one of 25 arbitrators chosen to hear tenure cases under the new law, was all about the teacher’s classroom evaluations and how they were carried out.

This is hardly expected to be an isolated case for Newark, as the district under Superintendent Cami Anderson filed close to 50 tenure charges at the end of last year, officials said.

Under the new law, the judgments of the evaluations themselves cannot be contested, only whether the process was properly followed and whether, among other standards, it had breached the bounds of “arbitrary and capricious.”

In a colorfully worded decision that invoked former US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Gregory detailed the various evaluations conducted by Williams’ principal at Miller Street School, Shakira Miller-Harrington, and said there was evidence that Williams did not meet the necessary standards.

Using formal teacher evaluation tools that are becoming commonplace under the law, Williams had received ranking of 0 on a scale of 5 in a majority of categories and subcategories, including instruction, planning and preparation, and classroom environment.

But Gregory said the inconsistency came in the principal’s narrative that followed the numerical grades, where Miller-Harrington only had praise in her observations of Williams’ instruction in the classroom. Quoting the narrative’s praise of Williams’ interaction with students and use of language, the arbitrator called it a “stark and stunning 180-degree turn.”

“The teacher oral and written communication is clear and expressive, anticipating possible student misconceptions,” Gregory quoted from the evaluation. “Teacher’s well-chosen vocabulary enriches the lesson and serves as a positive model.”

The arbitrator in his decision wrote the extremes were too stark: “I simply note the stunning facial contradiction on the annual performance review, with its blatant contradictory results shattering any norms of process. Charging the (teacher) with inefficiency within days of this narrative is the quintessence of arbitrary and capricious action.”

A district spokeswoman last night declined to comment.

But Stuart Ball, the lawyer for Williams, noted that the decision was speedy, with the arbitrator issuing a summary judgment without even holding a hearing.

“The arbitrator obviously found too much of a disconnect,” Ball said. “We were complaining that everything (in the process) was up for grabs, but we never even got to that.”

With Gregory’s decision, Ball said his client would be reinstated to his position at Miller Street and would receive back pay.

Ball was more critical of the arbitration process as a whole, under the new law, with its tight time restrictions requiring that cases be decided within 45 days after a hearing and limiting the pay that arbitrators can make.

“The process is draconian, and I think in time they’ll find out it’s not workable,” Ball said. “I know the politicians wanted everything quicker and cheaper. And we were fortunate in our decision. But the other cases going on are going to be under terrific time pressures.”

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