Renewed Hope for School Districts in Tenure Disputes
In its efforts to promote education and the safety and well-being of children, the Old Bridge Township Board of Education holds personnel accountable for maintaining acceptable standards of behavior. Where tenured personnel fall short of these acceptable standards, the Board initiates administrative proceedings and, where appropriate, seeks dismissal. Along with past success in tenure disputes, the Board has again prevailed in a case entitled In the Matter of the Tenure Hearing of Maxine King, School District of Old Bridge Township, Middlesex County, OAL Dkt. No. EDU 4241-00 (OAL Jan. 10, 2002), aff'd, (Comm'r of Educ. Feb 25, 2002). The King decision is an important victory for all local boards of education facing similar disputes.
Where tenured personnel fall short of acceptable standards of behavior, boards of education may initiate administrative proceedings and look to either dismiss the employee or reduce his or her compensation in accordance with the Tenure Employees Hearing Law, N.J.S.A. 18A:6-10 et seq. The board bears the burden of substantiating charges of inefficiency, incapacity, unbecoming conduct or other just cause against a tenured employee by a preponderance of the evidence.
As a general matter, boards enjoy great success in obtaining dismissal on the grounds of unbecoming conduct and insubordination if the charges levied against the teacher are supported by evidence of egregious misconduct. Where the charges are supported by evidence of behavior that, although poor and inappropriate, is not egregious, many boards are reluctant to proceed with tenure charges. These boards fear the expense of a hearing and the risk of not obtaining an order of dismissal. These fears are compounded when the teacher at issue is a veteran teacher with a clean disciplinary record. The King decision, however, should convince many boards that they need not tolerate substandard performance by any member of its teaching staff.
Maxine King was a veteran art teacher with a relatively unblemished employment history with the Old Bridge Township Public School District. In recent years, however, the Board noted a general deterioration in her performance and relationship with students, parents and colleagues. King made several inappropriate remarks about her students, engaged in threatening and unacceptable behavior toward students, used profanity on one occasion, and employed a rigid and punitive method of student discipline. King also failed to fully comply with administrators' requests and reasonable directives, and resisted participation in student recognition programs because they created additional work for her. Although the Board was able to substantiate the above, there was no evidence presented of clearly egregious behavior. Rather, King was simply a teacher whose performance and attitude were failing.
The Board prevailed on charges of unbecoming conduct and insubordination against King, and sought her dismissal. Absent an incident of such egregious behavior that alone would warrant dismissal, the Board argued that the series of less egregious incidences, taken together, demonstrated a pattern of unbecoming conduct by King. The Board further argued that King not only failed to show reasonable respect for the authority of her administrators, but she demonstrated blatant disregard for their directives. The Board argued that such conduct constitutes insubordination and, without any indication of a willingness to accept responsibility for her actions and improve, the dismissal of King was the only appropriate remedy. The Honorable Beatrice S. Tylutki, A.L.J., agreed and ordered King's removal from her tenured teaching position.
The Commissioner of Education also agreed with the Board. Although the Commissioner acknowledged King's lengthy service history with the Board and the absence of any prior disciplinary actions against her, he noted that, "[p]articularly unsettling is [King's] failure to acknowledge any problematic conduct on her part, let alone be repentant for it." The Commissioner also recognized the pattern of poor behavior demonstrated by King and the absence of any hope that King would, in the future, yield to administrative authority without continued conflict. As stated by the Commissioner, "it cannot be said that [King's] behavior is an aberration; nor can it be said that it is more likely than not that such conduct would not be repeated in the future." The Commissioner affirmed King's dismissal and referred the matter to the State Board of Examiners for possible action against her teaching certificate.
The success of the Old Bridge Township Board of Education in King gives renewed hope to boards confronted with similar situations of personnel who are steadily failing to perform in an acceptable manner. Boards need not overburden administrators with almost daily oversight of a problematic teaching staff member, or sacrifice the education of district students. Boards can succeed not only in substantiating charges, but in obtaining an order of dismissal.