State Moves to Add Arbitrators to Handle Rise in Teacher-Tenure Disputes

John Mooney | July 23, 2015 | Education
Number of cases this year already near total for all of 2014 – and pace is expected to accelerate

When the state rewrote its teacher-tenure law in mid-2012, the number of tenure disputes going before the new system of arbitrators started as a slow trickle: There were four posted decisions in the second half of 2012, 27 rulings in 2013, and 33 more in 2014.

But those totals have been nearly matched for 2015, with the 30th decision of the year posted this week, and the state is already taking steps to help handle the increased caseload going forward.

An emergency bill passed by both the Senate and Assembly would double the number of arbitrators appointed to handle disputed cases, from 25 to 50, and also provide additional stipends for each case to be decided.

Gov. Chris Christie has yet to sign it, but the bill won consensus approval in both chambers, and also has the support of the state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association.

“The whole point of the tenure law was to make the process faster, but if you don’t have enough arbitrators, it doesn’t matter how fast your timeline is,” said Steve Baker, a spokesman for the NJEA.

One of the prime sponsors of the bill said the system has already been feeling the strain of the current workload.

“I think they were having difficulty in getting people to serve,” said state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee. “There is already a difficulty in moving cases. This is a current reality.”

State Department of Education officials would not comment on the bill, saying it still needed to be signed by Christie. But in a response to legislative staff inquiries during the annual budget process, the administration acknowledged the numbers of cases were sure to rise as the law settles in place.

“The Department estimates a substantial increase in the number of tenure cases filed under TEACHNJ for the 2015-16 school year,” read the department’s budget report. “The number of tenure cases will likely rise into the hundreds.”

The administration estimated a total of 75 charges were filed during the 2014-15 school year, not all of which yet decided or posted.

It’s been a time of adjustment for state and school officials, with the switch away from the decades-old process of having administrative law judges deciding tenure cases to now employing a small cadre of appointed arbitrators, not all of them even from New Jersey.

Under the new law known as TEACHNJ, the goal was to speed up what had become a slow and cumbersome process for resolving disputed tenure cases, which sometimes spanned years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses.

The law calls for any tenure charges involving “inefficiency” – the technical term for ineffective teaching – to move to the state Department of Education within 30 days, with the commissioner required to assign the case to an arbitrator, if needed, within another 25 days.

The hearing then must be held within 45 days, and a decision rendered within 45 days after that.

[related]So far, said Baker of the NJEA, the process has worked to the union’s satisfaction, moving cases more quickly while also protecting employee rights.

“So far, so good,” he said. “It appears to be working as designed, addressing issues of time and cost while preserving due process.”

It probably helps the union’s position that the arbitrators in the nearly 100 cases so far have largely sided with the teachers, with a preponderance of the cases coming out of Newark and almost all of those dismissed by arbitrators on procedural grounds.

But more cases are sure to move through the arbitration pipeline, with nearly 3,000 teachers rated “ineffective” or “partially effective” in 2013-14 and the next set of teacher ratings due to come out in the fall.

Under the new law, teachers with less than “effective” ratings for two consecutive years can be brought up on tenure charges.