The New Jersey Commissioner of Education, in a December decision, determined that a board of education did not act in an arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable fashion when it determined to withhold the increment of an assistant principal for failing to provide sufficient oversight over the publication of the annual student yearbook. 

In the case, the district’s assistant principal of humanities was not a member of any collective bargaining unit. As part of his job duties, the assistant principal had administrative oversight over the teachers who were appointed as advisors to the Yearbook Club, a stipend position that assisted with the publication of the student yearbook. The club was an extracurricular activity that supported the yearbook by conducting fundraising activities; however the Yearbook Club did not create or review the yearbook content. That content was created and reviewed in an elective class that was included in the student curriculum and taught by the two teachers who served as advisors to the Yearbook Club. 

In their capacity as yearbook advisors, the two teachers, both serving in their first year as advisors to the yearbook, reported to the student activities coordinator. However, the coordinator did not report to the assistant principal.   

When the 2019 student yearbook was published, the district soon discovered that it contained a controversial statement by a graduating senior. Due to the nature of the statement, a public controversy was sparked which drew the ire of parents, the public, and the board of education.  

After an investigation, the board imposed an increment withholding on the assistant principal and the two teachers who served as yearbook advisors. The board also issued a written reprimand to the student activities coordinator, rescinded the salary increases of both the principal and assistant principal, and issued a public reprimand to the superintendent.  

The assistant principal appealed his withholding to the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, arguing that the board was arbitrary and capricious in implementing the withholding because it was the yearbook advisors and student activities coordinator who made the editing error. He also argued that the responsibility of advising and supervising the yearbook, and of supervising the coordinator of student activities, was outside the scope of his job responsibilities. He further argued both that the board failed to carry its burden of proof because the withholding was disciplinary and not evaluative, and that if the matter had gone to arbitration, the board would have had to demonstrate “just cause” for the withholding. 

The commissioner determined that the assistant principal’s burden of proof argument was misplaced because case law has long held that, when appealing a board’s increment withholding, the challenger must demonstrate that the board “acted arbitrarily without rational basis or was induced by improper motives.” The commissioner then determined that while the assistant principal may not have had direct responsibility to review the yearbook content, he was not completely divorced from the matter; he had oversight of the class responsible for creating and reviewing the content, and of at least one of its teachers. The commissioner held that the assistant principal was one of the individuals who, in his administrative capacity, could have acted to prevent the unfortunate occurrence. While the assistant principal may have considered the board’s response as harsh or unfair, it acted rationally and within its authority. Accordingly, the commissioner upheld the withholding. 

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