Low-Profile Board Rules in High-Stakes Misconduct Cases Against Educators

John Mooney | October 2, 2013 | Education
Examiners rule on serious charges that could lead to loss of license for teachers, administrators

Department of Education Building
Often the last stop for miscreant educators, a little-known state board has seen its caseload of teachers and administrators accused of serious misconduct more than double in the last decade.

The State Board of Examiners, an eight-member board of teachers and administrators appointed by the state education commissioner, last year heard 97 cases of teachers accused of criminal or other serious wrongdoing that put their teaching license in doubt.

That number represents a tiny fraction of the statewide teaching force, which tops 100,000, and it pertains to a process that is separate altogether from the one for teachers found to be ineffective in the classroom.

Still, in an overwhelming majority of cases that reached the board, it decided to either rescind or suspend the educator’s certification, which is practically a death sentence for a public-education career. Of those 97 cases, 85 ended in decisions to rescind licenses.

That total is more than double the 37 cases decided in 2002. The increase was due to a number of factors, said a state education department spokesman.

“The reporting is a lot better, and technology has made it easier to track some of the cases,” said spokesman Michael Yaple. “Plus, we’re simply getting more aggressive.”

The board last month had one of its higher-profile cases with its decision to rescind the administrator and teaching certificates of Michael Ritacco, the former Toms River superintendent who this year pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges. Ritacco was one of the state’s most prominent – and most highly paid – school superintendents before his downfall.

“The commissioner has long held that teachers serve as role models for their students,” the ruling read. “Clearly Ritacco’s conviction indicates that his actions here are not those of a role model. The board therefore believes that the only appropriate sanction in this case is the revocation of Ritacco’s certificates.”

That was a pretty easy decision, and even Ritacco hardly challenged the process, according to the final ruling.

More commonly, the board hears up to a dozen cases a month – and investigates many more beyond that – of teachers and administrators accused of everything from sexual misconduct to breaches in state test security.

Over the last couple of years, the state board has heard or investigated 45 cases related to possible violations of test security, part of a widespread sweep by the state Department of Education of schools where test results have been suspect.

Meanwhile, sexual misconduct continues to be a prevailing theme. About half of the cases heard by the board last month related to possible sexual misconduct, including the case of an art teacher who allegedly sent sexually suggestive texts to a student.

“A lot of teachers are getting into trouble with what are inappropriate relations,” Yaple said. “You see it often with texting or social media, it all leaves a record that can be traced.”

In another case, it was a prior arrest record that came to light.

“It is well established that the State Board of Examiners has the right to revoke a certificate where the teacher was involved in criminal activities, even if the activities were unrelated to the classroom,” the decision read.

The Board of Examiners is a different track from the new process in which arbitrators are hearing an increasing number of tenure charges against teachers, following the enactment of the new tenure-reform law.

In those cases, teachers can be brought up on tenure charges for so-called inefficiency or failures to teach effectively.

In cases before the Board of Examiners, the judgments are significantly more serious, not just whether educators should lose tenure protections in a given district but whether they should be certified to teach or even be in a school at all.

In many of the cases, a teacher may not have even been brought up as yet on tenure charges. Almost a third of cases last year involved findings discovered in the required review of criminal history.

Overall, the bulk of the cases relate to potential criminal misbehavior, with almost half coming through sources ranging from prosecutors or court dockets as reported in the press.

“We get a sizable number from the courts, and even just reading newspaper articles,” Yaple said.

The increase in the number of cases has been significant enough that the board has added an investigator to its staff of four employees.