Last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a provision in a collective negotiations agreement between a board of education and the local education association that authorized payment of full salaries and benefits to the union president and designee while they performed exclusively union duties and no teaching duties. This overturned the decision of the New Jersey Appellate Division in the same matterpreviously reported in School Board Notes, which held that the board did not have statutory authority to grant the leave. 

The case, Rozenblit v. Lyles, centered on a provision in a teachers’ collective negotiations agreement (contract) with the district that permitted the union president and designee to dedicate all working hours to union matters and provided the president with “adequate office and parking facilities.” Two taxpayers brought suit, challenging this provision of the teachers’ contract on the grounds that it violated a part of the New Jersey Constitution known as the “Gift of Public Funds” clause. The board and the local education association were both defendants in the case. 

Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that the provision violated Article VIII, Section 3 of the state constitution, which prohibits a county or local municipality from giving money or property, loaning money or credit, or providing aid to an individual, association, or corporation. It further prohibits donation of land or money by a state, county, or municipal corporation to, or for the use of, any society, association or corporation. Additionally, at issue in the case was whether the board had statutory authority to grant the leave under N.J.S.A. 18A:30-7, which states that a board of education may determine, among other things, “the payment of salary in cases of absence not constituting sick leave . . . .”  

The trial court found that the contract provision did not violate the state constitution. However, the Appellate Division overturned the trial court’s decision based on N.J.S.A. 18A:30-7 and without making a decision on the plaintiffs’ constitutional objections. The Appellate Division held that the contract violated the statute, which allows a board to provide paid leave for absences not qualifying as sick time, but does not permit paid leave for time that employees are engaged in another organization’s work while not actually absent from the district. Such provisions are commonly known as “release time” provisions. 

In its Feb3 decision, the N.J. Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division and held that the “release time” provision did not violate the New Jersey constitution, and local boards of education have statutory authority to grant such leave. First, the court found that the “legislative goal” of N.J.S.A. 18A:30-7 was clearly to provide boards with “expansive authority” to determine leaves of absence. The release time qualified as an absence because the union leaders were released from their ordinarily-assigned teaching duties in the district. Other school and labor statutes similarly supported that the board was statutorily authorized to provide the release time.  

Second, the court found no violation of the constitution here. New Jersey courts use a two-part test to determine if the Gift Clause has been violated: (1) whether the provision at issue serves a public purpose, and (2) “whether the means to accomplish that purpose are consonant with it.” The court reasoned that the “release time” served the public purpose of prompt settlement of labor disputes. Significantly, the released union members not only performed tasks at the direction of the Association, but were “routinely asked by district officials to intervene in specific settings” and report on the results. Because the public purpose was a “paramount factor” in the release time provision, the provision was not outside the bounds of the constitution. 

The Rozenblit decision allows boards to have flexibility in negotiations when it comes to employee release time. Boards should be prepared to address the issue of release time, including any demands for an increase in the amount of time, should it come up during negotiations. Districts that have or are considering including release time provisions in their collective negotiations agreements are encouraged to review this decision with their board attorney. For additional information, please contact the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254. 

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