In a recent decision, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court determined that it was important for a guidance department to maintain a cooperative relationship amongst coworkers and that a lack of progressive discipline was not fatal to a school district’s tenure dismissal of a school psychologist.

In Holeman v. Freehold Reg’l. High Sch. Dist., the board of education certified tenure charges of unbecoming conduct against a school psychologist who allegedly used profanity in front of students and made other inappropriate comments that negatively affected his relationship with peers.

The board’s charges expressed concern with the psychologist’s erratic, volatile, and overall troubling behavior, and alleged that the psychologist lacked the capacity to perform his duties effectively. After conducting 12 hearing dates, the arbitrator issued a decision terminating the psychologist.

The psychologist appealed to the superior court, which upheld the arbitration award. He then appealed to the Appellate Division, arguing that the award was procured by undue means.  In reviewing arbitration awards, New Jersey courts operate by an extremely high standard, in essence requiring the appealing party to demonstrate the arbitrator exceeded his authority, lacked an intent to comply with the law, or that the decision suggested fraud or misconduct by the arbitrator. Applying this stringent standard, the Appellate Division affirmed both the arbitrator and trial court decisions.

In reviewing the underlying facts, the Appellate Division focused on the psychologist’s claim that the arbitrator exceeded his authority by creating a new “irrevocable differences” standard when assessing the impact of the psychologist’s conduct in the work environment.

In defining the proper standard to determine whether a tenured teacher has engaged in unbecoming conduct, the court held “the touchstone is fitness to discharge the duties and functions of one’s office or position.” In support of the charges, the court noted that a charge of unbecoming conduct includes a review of the public perception of the board and how that perception can be harmed by allowing teachers to behave inappropriately while holding public office.

The court concluded by noting that as to incapacity, “school authorities have the right and the duty to screen officials, teachers, and employees as to their fitness to maintain the integrity of the schools as a part of ordered society….”

Accordingly, the Appellate Division affirmed the arbitrator’s application of the above-noted unbecoming conduct standard as applied to this matter. Moreover, the court determined that progressive discipline would not be appropriate in this case where the psychologist’s co-workers expressed substantial concerns with his conduct and the record showed a breakdown in his relationship with colleagues and administrators.

For more information about this case, board members should consult with their board attorney or call the New Jersey School Boards Association Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.

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