Newark forced to rehire tenured teacher despite new state law

By Naomi Nix | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on November 10, 2014

NEWARK — A state-appointed arbitrator ordered Newark Public Schools last month to rehire a teacher the district tried to fire under New Jersey's revised tenure legislation.

Stephen Bluth ruled that the district could not revoke Sandra Cheatham's tenure protections on the basis of a negative teacher evaluation from the 2012-2013 school year because TeachNJ— the state's revised teacher tenure law — was not in effect at the start of the school year.

"The 2012-13 school year was essentially an experimental one that would produce an evaluation system for 2013-14," Bluth wrote in an opinion dated Oct. 16, 2014.

Under Teach NJ, which Gov. Chris Christie signed into law in August 2012, school districts were required to develop a four-point teacher rating system, which included highly effective, effective, partially effective and ineffective categories.

Two consecutive years of a partially effective or ineffective rating would strip a tenured teacher of his or her job protection and allow the district to fire the teacher. In addition to tenure charge for inefficiency, school districts may issue a teacher tenure charge for conduct unbecoming of an education.

But the law also gave teachers up to 15 days to respond to a tenure charge, after which the state's education commissioner may refer the case to a state arbitrator.

In the Cheatham case, Newark Public Schools argued that it had already developed a "pilot" teacher evaluation system during the 2011-2012, and therefore its 2012-2013 evaluation should be counted.

Additionally, the district said the state approved its evaluation system for the 2012-2013 school year.

But Cheatham argued that the 2012-2013 evaluation system did not fulfill all state requirements, including lacking a school improvement panel to oversee the district's mentoring program.

Additionally, the state advised school district that the 2012-2013 school year was supposed to function as a pilot year to test its evaluation system, Cheatham argued.

Bluth agreed with Cheatham.

“The arbitrator was very clear,” said John Abeigon, director of operations of the Newark Teachers Union. “You can’t just make up the rules as you go along.”

Under the ruling, Newark Public Schools will pay any back pay she missed as a result of the tenure charge. The school district said in a statement it was currently working with Cheatham to obtain a "mutually agreed upon outcome."

But the Cheatham ruling could impact dozens of other teachers in a similar predicament, say some experts.

“Legally it’s not binding,” Cheatham's lawyer Collin Lynch, said of Bluth's ruling. “But we believe it presents strong persuasive authority with other arbitrators.”

But Newark Public Schools rejected that argument.

"The Cheatham case represented a decision by one arbitrator. The district feels confident that we will prevail in the other cases," the school system said in a statement.

The Newark school system plans to serve more than 90 tenure charges to teachers from the 2013-2014 school year, including almost 70 for inefficiency alone.

Of the teachers already served tenure charges, 45 have opted to leave the district, while 20 cases are now waiting to be resolved through arbitration, according to the district.

Even if other arbitrators agree with Bluth on pending cases, the argument that the district moved prematurely won't hold up at the end of this school year.

“The argument on that end is only going to apply for this round of charges,” Lynch said. "If new charges come this spring this would not longer apply."

And local teachers unions are already preparing to examine any tenure charges issued this school year, to make sure school districts are following proper protocol.

“We pay close attention to whether the law is being followed,” said Steve Bakers, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union.

“We’re prepared to challenge anything that appears to be a misuse of the evaluation system.”

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment