New Tenure Reform Law Delivers First Verdict

TEACHNJ speeds and clarifies process for removing substandard teachers, starting with one charged with disorderly conduct

The case filed in August wasn’t much different than the typical tenure case that had been brought countless times before in New Jersey, a teacher caught on the wrong side of the law and deemed no longer fit to be in a classroom.

In this one, it was an elementary school teacher in Vineland — Mark Bringhurst — who was caught running naked across a parking lot, an incident that ultimately landed him a conviction on a disorderly persons charge.

But what made this instance exceptional is the expedited process it followed, the very first case adjudicated under New Jersey’s brand-new tenure reform law.

Since the Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey Act (TEACHNJ) was signed in early August, 32 tenure charges have been filed by districts in New Jersey, according to the state Department of Education yesterday.

All will follow new procedures intended to speed and clarify the process for getting rid of substandard teachers. As part of the process, 25 specially selected arbitrators hear the cases — protecting the defendants’ right to due process while working with tighter timelines and narrower windows for appeal.

No more administrative law judges to hear the cases, no more lengthy court schedules, which critics contend cost districts — and their taxpayers — thousands of dollars. It was a rallying cry that Gov. Chris Christie invoked more than a few times to promote tenure reform, and one that the teachers unions had trumpeted themselves in a proposal for streamlining the system.

With “In the Matter of the Tenure Hearing of Mark C. Bringhurst,” the new law has its Exhibit A. And in some ways, the law did appear to make a difference.

“I will say it was expeditious,” said Bringhurst’s own attorney.

Bringhurst’s case is hardly a poster child for tenure reform. While Christie and legislators pressed for the new law as a way to get rid of ineffective teachers in the classroom, Bringhurst’s misconduct out of the school was at issue. Under the old law, such cases were predominant as well.

In Bringhurst’s case, the fifth grade teacher in Vineland’s Winslow School — and his school’s 2011-2012 Teacher of the Year — was arrested for running naked one March evening through an apartment complex in his hometown of Berlin Township in the presence of witnesses.

Bringhurst claimed it was on a dare from someone he met online and he didn’t mean to be seen. But he had done it once before in the same location, and Berlin police charged him with the more serious felony charge of lewdness. He ultimately pleaded to a municipal disorderly persons charge in July, but even so, the Vineland Board of Education in August filed a tenure charge of “unbecoming conduct.”

“Mr. Bringhurst is an elementary school teacher and his behavior cannot be tolerated by the Vineland School District,” read the charge.

Bringhurst contested the charge, and filed less than a month after TEACHNJ was signed into law.

In his response, Bringhurst cited his unblemished teaching record, and asked for leniency.

“While Mr. Bringhurst acted in an arguably improper manner, which human beings tend to do from time to time, “ according to his defense as cited in the arbitrator’s decision, “he immediately sought assistance from his pastor and those to whom his pastor referred him.”

“For the past ninety days he has participated in counseling sessions exploring the roots of his behavior and has embarked on a course of accountability to prevent the behavior from reoccurring,” his lawyer continued.

In this case, the arbitrator was Robert C. Gifford, a Monmouth County lawyer who has served as an arbitrator with the state’s Public Employees Relations Commission since 2001. He was one of 25 arbitrators statewide selected to expressly hear tenure cases under the new law, with unions, school boards, and other education association getting a say as to who made the list.

This fall, Gifford took testimony from the various parties at Vineland’s board of education offices. Among them were the board’s personnel director and the arresting police officer. Bringhurst also testified, and did not contest the facts in the case, just the interpretation.

In his 21-page decision, Gifford cited a number of New Jersey court precedents on tenure cases as to what constitutes “unbecoming conduct.” He weighed the issue of how this incident happened outside of school, and also Bringhurst’s remorse and decision to seek counseling.

But Gifford wrote that the fact that Bringhurst had committed the act twice, along with questions whether he lied to the arresting officer, crossed the line.

“The facts and circumstances above demonstrate that the Respondent exercised severely poor judgment on more than one occasion,” Gifford wrote.

“His lack of judgment is not diminished by the fact that his conduct occurred outside of the school setting,” Gifford noted. “The Respondent’s actions are simply not consistent with the conduct that a fifth grade elementary school teacher must display whether in or out of the classroom.”

Bringhurst’s attorney, Robert Bowman, yesterday said he would not speak to the merits of the case or the arbitrator’s decision, nor did he say whether there would be an appeal. Under the law, an arbitrator’s decision can only be appealed on whether proper procedures were followed, not on the decision.

Bowman said he did not know it was TEACHNJ’s first decided case, but he was aware it was one of the early ones. “When I called about it, they said the law had just been signed,” Bowman said.

Still, the lawyer of 21 years had no complaints about the process, saying Gifford’s proceedings were timely and professional. Bowman hadn’t handled a tenure case before, but he was familiar with administrative law court and knew it could be plodding. The law called for this case to be decided within 45 days of the hearing, and it was.

“I thought it was handled very professionally and fairly,” Bowman said.

A spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, which had a big stake in the new legislation, also would not speak to the specific case, but said the process seemed to work in this first example. The NJEA itself had initially proposed the expedited process of using arbitrators, almost a year before the law was enacted.

“The new law is designed to preserve fairness while making the process faster and less expensive,” said NJEA spokesman Steve Baker.

“We have not seen any evidence yet to indicate it is not working as intended,” he said. “We want the law to work, and we are watching to make sure that it does.

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