State Arbitrators Rule on First Cases Brought Under New Tenure Law

John Mooney | April 30, 2013 | Education
A handful of early cases address misconduct and inefficiency, a charge stemming from teachers' classroom performance

Eight months into New Jersey’s new teacher tenure law, state arbitrators have ruled on a trickle of disputed cases, many of them dealing with egregious cases of misconduct.

But there have been notable exceptions. Newark is pioneering its own path, using the law to try to remove teachers because of their qualitative performance in the classroom — technically a charge of “inefficiency.”

In total, 15 cases have been decided by a stable of specially assigned arbitrators, with the results posted to the state Department of Education’s website.

Nine have been for so-called conduct unbecoming, a broad category ranging from excessive absenteeism to a Woodbridge teacher accused of improperly helping students during the state testing.

In the majority of cases, the districts have prevailed — either revoking tenure or meting out significant penalties. The Woodbridge case was one of three misconduct hearings in which the arbitrator upheld the district decision to fire the teacher outright.

In contrast, the six Newark cases have turned on charges against teachers related to their classroom performance and practice.

The results thus far have been more mixed. The district has won half of the cases, but two others were denied outright, with the teachers fully reinstated. In the sixth, the teacher was reinstated but denied a raise.

School administrators are just getting a feel for the new system. Experts say they expect far more charges of inefficiency next year. The law requires districts to file such charges if a teacher has two consecutive years of unsatisfactory evaluations.

In addition, the caseload does not count all the instances in which a settlement is reached on a tenure charge before a final determination is made by the arbitrator. These cases often lead to a teacher retiring or deciding to move to another district.

But the early rulings have also set some of the first legal precedents for the new system, yielding early clues as to how arbitrators will decide tenure disputes that used to be left to administrative law judges.

Here are three illustrative cases:

Woodbridge Board of Education and John Radzik (April 2013)

This is the first tenure decision stemming from the state’s investigation into charges that Woodbridge teachers and administrators improperly aided students in annual testing in 2010 and 2011.

Radzik was a third-grade teacher in the Avenel Street School and was accused of disclosing information about test items before the 2010 and 2011 NJASK tests, as well as influencing students’ answers during the tests.

His defense was a largely positive teaching record, including Teacher of the Year awards and commendation for his work in preparing students for the state exams through NJASK pep rallies and other programs. He also raised questions about training of staff to administer the tests and intense pressures on teachers to deliver test scores.

In a 46-page decision, arbitrator Joseph Licata found on behalf of the district, laying out a litany of testimony from witnesses for and against Radzik. But in the end, Licata said that even if Radzik maintained he was only trying to help his students, he was actually hurting them and the rest of the district.

“Even if Radzik acted purely to protect his students, there is a profound difference between giving a student a push in the right direction and riding the bicycle for him,” Licata wrote.

Newark School District and Darrin Hawthorne (February 2013)

The charge of inefficiency against Hawthorne, a sixth grade math teacher at the Bragaw Avenue School, is one of dozens of tenure charges filed by the administration of superintendent Cami Anderson under the new law last year.

But Hawthorne’s case proved a complex and nuanced one, in which the teacher ultimately prevailed. He was charged by the district with no less than 82 separate incidents of ineffective teaching, including poor evaluations and examples of vague questioning of students and using the wrong materials or curricula. As with other such cases, the problems had been long-running and included prior citations and disciplinary actions.

Hawthorne’s defense largely centered on what he called his poor relationship with his principal at Bragaw, saying the relationship clouded the evaluations. He also said that he had either made improvements where cited or the district had provided little support or specifics about his shortcomings.

In February, arbitrator Gerard Restaino ruled on behalf of Hawthorne, saying that his relationship with the principal had grown toxic. He cited one instance in which the two needed a mediator to communicate. And he said the evaluation and observation process from that time involved little interaction beyond brief conversations and emails.

“You can go into anyone’s classroom and find fault with something,” Restaino said in his ruling. “If you find fault with something, you are obligated to offer suggestions to correct that noted deficiency. That did not happen here.”

In closing, he added one suggestion: “It is also highly recommended that Mr. Hawthorne be transferred to a different school.”

School District of the City of Bridgeton and Sara Hancock (April 2013)

A 22-year veteran of the district, Hancock was a special education teacher at the Cherry Street School in the Cumberland County district when charges of “conduct unbecoming” were filed against her in February.

The accusation was that she had been verbally and physically abusive of students, with one allegation that she punched a student in the chest. The district brought in security videotape to try to make its case.

The teacher cited her clean teaching record, and that she did not punch the student but only tried to control her and protect other students. The teacher’s testimony went into great detail as to what happened in the incident, which had been videotaped.

Arbitrator Timothy Brown found in his decision that Hancock may have pushed the student and screamed in a threatening manner, the incident did not rise to hitting or striking the student. He also found it was isolated in Hancock’s 22 years as a teacher, with no other blemishes on her record.

But while he did not uphold the district’s decision to terminate the teacher, Brown did rule in favor of a 120-day unpaid suspension. According to the ruling, Hancock will return to work next month.

“I am persuaded that as a consequence of the suspension issued herein, Respondent will correct her conduct and will not engage in conduct unbecoming in the future,” Brown said. “As a result, I find that dismissal is not warranted here.”