The New Jersey Appellate Division recently determined that a school board could not rescind a contract with the local superintendent, and enter into a new contract with that same superintendent, without giving the public prior notice.
In February 2011, the New Jersey Department of Education adopted regulations placing a cap on superintendent salaries. In September of 2014, the Wall Township Board of Education appointed their superintendent of schools to a five-year contract and agreed to a pay her a salary within the established caps. However, the contract contained an escalator clause that allowed the superintendent’s salary to be modified if the regulatory salary caps were ever lifted.
In May 2017, new salary caps were promulgated by the New Jersey Department of Education. Accordingly, the local executive county superintendent advised all superintendents within the county that they could begin negotiating salary increases with their respective boards. The executive county superintendent’s letter advised that if the superintendent’s current employment contract was amended, the board was required to convene a public hearing on the amendment with a properly advertised public notice.
However, the letter further advised that if the superintendent’s employment contract were to be rescinded, and a new contract negotiated, no such public hearing was required. Following receipt of the letter, and with the consent of the executive county superintendent, the Wall Township board rescinded the superintendent’s employment contract and entered into a new agreement without a public hearing. However, the local education association objected.
In Wall Twp. Ed. Assn. v. Wall Twp. Bd. of Educ., the Wall Township Education Association filed a petition of appeal before the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, challenging the board’s action as conflicting with the public hearing requirement contained in N.J.S.A. 18A:11-11. The commissioner found no violation in the board’s actions because, while the statute prevented a board from renegotiating, extending, amending, or otherwise altering the contract, it did not prevent a board from rescinding an existing contract and entering into a new agreement. Therefore, the commissioner upheld the board’s actions and dismissed the petition.
The education association then appealed to the Appellate Division on the same grounds, namely, that the board failed to convene a public hearing as was required by statute; therefore, the association argued, the public was deprived of a public hearing on the superintendent’s contract.
The Appellate Division, while acknowledging that deference is usually given to state agencies, and citing the rule that courts may not re-write a plainly written legislative enactment, the court noted that “where a literal interpretation would create a manifestly absurd result, contrary to public policy, the spirit of the law should control.”
With those principles in mind, the court disagreed with the commissioner to the extent that the board’s action to rescind the superintendent’s contract and agree to a new one could be defined as a rescission that allowed the board to avoid the public notice and hearing requirements of N.J.S.A. 18A:11-11. The Appellate Division noted that the statute was put in place by the Legislature as comprehensive legislation with the clear mandates of public notice and a public hearing. The court held that the mutual rescission of the contract should not circumvent the statute’s notice and hearing requirements, regardless of the executive county superintendent’s instruction.
The Appellate Division concluded by reversing the commissioner’s decision, overturning the board’s approval of the superintendent’s contract, and directing the board to vote on a new contract in compliance with the public notice and hearing requirements contained in statute.
For more information on this matter, board members should contact their board attorney or call the NJSBA’s Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.