In New Jersey, spring not only brings the start of warmer weather, but also—perhaps more important for school board members—several critical deadlines related to renewal decisions for some key school employees. This article briefly summarizes the nonrenewal process and the role of board members during these determinations.
State law N.J.S.A. 18A:27-4.1 permits, among other things, the renewal of district staff by the board only upon the recommendation of the chief school administrator (CSA). By May 15 of each year, the CSA must provide non-tenured teachers and paraprofessionals with either a new employment contract or written notice of nonrenewal of the employee’s contract. See N.J.S.A. 18A:27-10 and -10.2. If a non-tenured teacher does not receive an employment contract or written notice by the May 15 deadline, the employee is presumed to have received an offer of employment for the upcoming school year under the same terms and conditions of employment.
By notifying an employee of his or her nonrenewal, the CSA is exercising a statutorily designated authority, therefore board approval of the nonrenewal is not necessary. Nevertheless, because the nonrenewed employee retains certain procedural rights, the board must be sure to comply with the following statutory and regulatory requirements.
Before notifying a staff member of a nonrenewal, the CSA must notify the board and provide the board with the supporting reasons. After receiving the CSA’s recommendation not to renew an employee, the board is not required to take any further action. However, because the above statute grants the CSA nonrenewal authority, the board must take affirmative action in order to overturn that nonrenewal. Additionally, the board may not act in an arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable fashion, meaning that if the board determines to reinstate a nonrenewed employee, it must have an objective reason.
Employees recommended for nonrenewal have the right to a written statement of the reasons for the nonrenewal as well as the right to an informal hearing before the board. These rights were first recognized by the New Jersey Supreme Court in the 1974 case Donaldson v. N. Wildwood Bd. of Educ., in which the court held that disclosure of the reasons for the nonrenewal is, fundamentally, a matter of fairness as well as necessary to mitigate against board abuse of discretion.
Upon receipt of a nonrenewal notice, a non-tenured teacher may request the statement of reasons within 15 days, and the statement must be provided within 30 days of the request. The nonrenewed teacher may then request an informal hearing before the board, called a “Donaldson hearing,” within 10 days of receipt of the statement of reasons. The aforementioned deadlines, as well as the deadlines discussed below, presumably apply to paraprofessionals, who are also entitled to a statement of reasons and a hearing.
It should be noted that in some circumstances, a non-tenured employee may not be entitled to a Donaldson hearing. Per the New Jersey Commissioner of Education’s 2007 decision in Ruby II v. Bd. of Educ. of the Twp. of Piscataway, an employee is not entitled to a Donaldson hearing if the employee did not request the statement of reasons. Moreover, in the 2011 case, Wonsetler v. Woodbury City Bd. of Educ., the commissioner distinguished the termination of a nontenured employee’s contract in the middle of a one-year contract term from a nonrenewal situation, deciding that the employee was not entitled to a Donaldson hearing in the case of an early termination. However, such an employee would retain the protections of his or her individual employment contract and any applicable collective negotiations agreement.
Assuming the employee is entitled to a Donaldson hearing, the requested Donaldson hearing must be scheduled within 30 days of the employee’s receipt of the statement of reasons. An employee recommended for nonrenewal must be provided with adequate written notice of the hearing, and the employee has the right to be represented at the hearing, present witnesses, and have public discussion. Witnesses presented may not be cross-examined, must be sequestered, and need not be sworn in.
The employee must be presented with notice of board determination within three days of the Donaldson hearing. However, per the New Jersey State Board of Education’s 1997 decision in Velasquez v. Bd. of Educ. of the Borough of Brielle, the mere fact that a Donaldson hearing was held does not require the board to take further action. An employee may appeal the board’s decision to the New Jersey Commissioner of Education within 90 days of receiving notice of the nonrenewal.
School boards are encouraged to discuss the procedures and requirements for employee nonrenewals with their board attorney. For additional information, please contact the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.