Amid all the debate surrounding her tenure as state-appointed leader of New Jersey’s largest school district, Newark schools Superintendent Cami Anderson has taken special pride in being able to retain and reward exemplary teachers while removing the poor ones.
But Anderson was dealt a setback last week when a state-appointed arbitrator rejected the first of dozens of tenure charges filed by Anderson, saying she had jumped the gun when she tried to use the state’s new tenure law to remove a teacher.
Anderson and the Newark Public Schools had maintained in the tenure charges filed against teacher Sandra Cheatham that she had received two consecutive years of “ineffective” or “partially effective” ratings, apparent grounds for losing her tenure protections under the new law, known as TEACHNJ.
But arbitrator Stephen Bluth found that the law itself had only been in effect since 2013, adding that while the district had run its evaluation system the year before on a pilot basis, it did not count toward the state’s law applicability.
“In my view, the ‘clock’ began with the 2013-14 school year,” Bluth wrote.
The decision delivers a blow to Anderson’s hopes to pull the tenure protections of more than 50 teachers, in many cases citing TEACHNJ provisions. Nearly half of those teachers resigned before their cases reached state arbitrators, Anderson said last week, with the rest awaiting judgment under the arbitration system.
Whether all the remaining cases relied on the same argument as Cheatham’s case was unclear, and a district spokesman initially could not be reached for comment. The district's chief talent officer, Vanessa Rodriguez, subsequently said that the district was considering its legal options.
"We recognize that supporting teachers is crucial and that we need a great teacher in every classroom. The TEACHNJ Act and the state’s aligned evaluation system not only support this notion but require that the district evaluate teachers and seek to retain those who have the most positive impact on students," she said in emailed statement. "Knowing that every year counts for our children, we have sought to fulfill the requirements of the law, support our effective educators, and hold our lowest-performing teachers accountable.
"In terms of the recently released arbitration case involving an NPS teacher, we respectfully disagree with the arbitrator’s decision as we have accurately applied the law and will consider our legal options regarding this individual case. In the meantime, we will continue to implement the evaluation system in NPS and maintain our strong focus on the success of students."
But the Newark Teachers Union, which represented Cheatham and the bulk of the remaining teachers, said the decision was an affirmation of its members’ right to due process. The union said the ruling would affect up to two-dozen cases now under review.
“This is the premier defense we used in these cases, that the law had clearly stated that 2012-13 was not to be used,” Gene Liss, the NTU’s chief counsel, said last night. “The department specifically said that, but (Anderson) forged ahead anyway and instituted these cases.”
Still, there was some question about how much one arbitrator’s decision would influence rulings by other arbitrators. Not a judicial process under the law, an arbitrator’s ruling doesn’t carry the same precedential weight as a judge’s decision.
“Others don’t have to follow it, but we’re hoping they do,” Liss said. “It was judicially sound, and we are hoping it will be the guidemark.”
Liss also acknowledged while the teacher and the NTU won this case, it could only be putting off the inevitable.
More tenure-charges cases are sure to resurface next year, when the law will have been in effect for two full -- and undisputed – years. He said he suspects hundreds of such cases will have been filed by the Newark district in that time, and that he has heard of similar numbers being likely in other large state-run districts such as Camden and Paterson.
“How’s the state going to handle 300-400 of these next year?” he said,
Bluth’s decision went into considerable detail in discussing how Anderson and her lawyers, at least for one year, tried to conform -- and arguably contort -- the law to fit with Newark’s teacher-evaluation system.
For example, he wrote that while Newark was among a handful of districts across the state that served as pilot programs to test the new evaluation system, there were some stark differences between the how to pilot program operated compared to the way it worked when the law actually went into effect, including differences in the number of classroom observations required for each teacher’s evaluation.
“For all the reasons delineated therein, I find the district erred when it discharged (Cheatham)….” Bluth wrote. “Appropriately, I determine, the remedy is reinstatement with full back pay and benefits.”