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Newark Parents’ LIFO Challenge Back in Court on Appeal

Summarily dismissed last month, the appeal turns on the plaintiffs’ allegation that judge didn’t give ‘adequate consideration to harm … being done’

Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson

The legal challenge to New Jersey’s LIFO law for teachers isn’t dead yet.

A month after a state judge dismissed a challenge to the law for what she said was a lack of evidence, the plaintiffs taking on the last-in-first-out seniority rules for teachers in Newark yesterday filed to appeal the decision.

“We don’t believe the judge gave adequate consideration to the harm that is being done,” said Kathleen Reilly, attorney for the Newark families that filed the initial suit and the subsequent appeal to the appellate division.

Still, the challenge faces long odds, inside and outside the courts.

Experience or quality?

It began a year ago, when the families spurred by the organization that has led similar challenges in Minnesota and New York first took on the state’s seniority rules, which require any layoffs be determined first and foremost on years of experience.

The so-called LIFO law has long been a controversial one, with critics maintaining that the quality of teachers should be equally important as experience in determining dismissals. Gov. Chris Christie is the latest to raise the challenge, but the law has nonetheless remained in place with little or no sign of the least political movement.

The plaintiffs then took to the courts, hoping for a remedy along constitutional grounds. All the families are from Newark and are being represented by the national Partnership for Educational Justice. They cited what they called the harm done specifically in their district schools, where close to 100 teachers are kept in an excess pool at a cost of about $8 million a year, neither teaching in classrooms nor eligible for dismissal because of seniority.

A quick rebuff

But the case saw a quick rebuff earlier this month, when state Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson gave an abrupt ruling dismissing the case even before trial, saying the plaintiffs hadn’t shown any evidence of harm. She specifically cited, among other factors, that the plaintiffs hadn’t proven their own children were being taught by substandard teachers.

Reilly, the lawyer for both the initial complaint and the appeal, maintained that Jacobsen had not considered the full scope of the case. She said the $8 million is a substantial impact in itself.

“We do believe there are current harms that we want the appellate court to weigh in on,” she said.

Ralia Polechronis, executive director of the Partnership for Educational Justice, cited briefs in support of the initial case from Newark superintendent Chris Cerf.

“The parents in this case raised legitimate concerns about a statute that is negatively impacting students' public education in New Jersey in violation of their constitutional rights,” she said in a statement.

“Their allegations were spot on and confirmed by the state's largest school district. At the very least, when a defendant admits nearly every allegation in a parent's complaint, the court should permit the parents to present their evidence and have their day in court.”

But just as the initial complaint was fought, the appeal is sure to draw an equally vigorous opposition. The teachers unions both in Newark and statewide were among the lead critics.

“We believed strongly that the case lacked merit when it was filed,” said Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state union. “The judge agreed with us. Appealing doesn't change the facts, and it won't make the case any stronger.”

A decision on the appeal is not expected for several months.

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