On Feb. 4, the New Jersey Commissioner of Education determined that a local board of education cannot lay off a tenured teacher who is the only properly endorsed instructor of a course mandated by the New Jersey Student Learning Standards.

The case began when the district’s New Jersey Department of Education-assigned state monitor recommended that the board eliminate the position of dance teacher and the elimination of the dance program.

The board voted to eliminate the position. The teacher appealed the reduction in force (RIF) to the commissioner, saying that the board could not eliminate her position because dance was a required course under the state’s learning standards. On Sept. 20, 2018, the commissioner remanded the matter to an administrative law judge for further fact finding.

On remand, the teacher again argued her RIF was improper because her job as a properly endorsed teacher of dance was the only position that could fulfill the dance requirements under the state learning standards. The teacher also argued that the district could not eliminate the dance program as it is required by the state. The district argued, however, that it was meeting its requirements because certified physical education teachers could provide “exposure to dance” as required in the physical education components of the standards.

The district further argued that students were also exposed to dance through other classes, such as theater and music, in a variety of ways including but not limited to media, reading materials and other activities such as Option II, which permits students to receive graduation credits in outside activities or programs in dance and theater, with program approval and monitoring by the building principal.

The judge was not convinced by the district’s arguments.  She concluded that local district boards of education are required to guarantee “that curriculum and instruction are designed and delivered in such a way that all students are able to demonstrate the knowledge and skills specified by the (state learning standards)…” N.J.A.C. 6A:8-3.1.

Visual and performing arts are a required course of study in New Jersey schools, and students must earn at least five credits in the arts to earn a state-endorsed diploma. Exposure to dance is not the same as providing instruction in the visual and performing arts disciplines, the judge explained. While Option II might provide such instruction, such outside activities are at the discretion of the individual student and not every student may be able to avail themselves of such opportunities.  The judge concluded that the reduction in force of the only tenured person in the district who held the proper endorsement to teach dance and the district’s elimination of the dance program were improper.

The New Jersey Commissioner of Education agreed with the judge’s conclusions. The commissioner acknowledged that boards of education have a great deal of freedom to implement curricula, however, none of the activities cited by the board as providing “exposure to dance” afforded students the opportunity to earn graduation credits in the discipline of dance. Further, the elimination of the position of dance instructor was improper as the position was necessary for the district to carry out its curriculum obligations.  The commissioner ordered the district to restore the dance program and reinstate the teacher to her full-time position retroactive to the date of her RIF, with full back pay and  benefits, less any mitigating activities that the teacher may have been involved in since the date of the reduction in force.

For more information, board members may seek to discuss this matter with their board attorney or call the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.

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