In this matter, a teacher who was first hired in the 2007 school year, obtained tenure, and taught without incident until the 2015-2016 school year, when he received an ineffective rating. Accordingly, he met with administrators and participated in the development of a corrective action plan, (CAP) for the 2016-2017 school year. However, shortly after the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, the teacher applied for and was granted leave under the terms of the Family Medical Leave Act and did not teach for the balance of that school year.

When the teacher returned to his teaching duties at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, he was assigned to teach kindergarten, a grade he had never taught before. At the end of the year, he achieved a score of “partially effective.” District administrators determined that the teacher failed to make sufficient progress in achieving the goals and objectives set forth in his CAP and carried the CAP over into the 2018-2019 school year. According to district administrators, the teacher’s performance deteriorated during the 2018-2019 school year, resulting in yet another partially proficient summative evaluation. Because he had now received two consecutive partially proficient ratings, district administrators filed tenure dismissal charges against the teacher.

After the charges were filed, the teacher asserted he had been subject to First Amendment retaliation stemming from his speaking out at public board of education meetings on the flaws he saw in the delivery of educational services and further protesting what he said were  stagnant wages paid to teachers. In response to his assertions, the district relied on the recently completed evaluations, mandated by statute, and cited several oral admissions from the teacher in interviews and other interactions with district supervisors.

In analyzing the tenure charges, the arbitrator noted that the employee was rated “ineffective” in his 2015-2016 evaluation, when he was teaching fifth grade, and accordingly was placed on a CAP for the 2016-2017 school year. However, he was on approved leave that entire year. Upon the end of that leave, he returned to the classroom for the 2017-2018 school year, and he was for the first time in his teaching career, the arbitrator noted, placed in a kindergarten classroom with almost no furniture or supplies.

Here, the arbitrator noted that substantively, the teacher was expected to assume a wholly foreign area of specialized teaching at the kindergarten level, but was not provided materials, meaningful peer or supervisory support, or supplemental in-person coaching to help him succeed in this new and challenging assignment at the beginning of the year or on a continuing basis throughout the school year.

Procedurally, district administrators admitted that the 2016-2017 CAP, which had only been in place for only a few weeks before the teacher took leave, was simply “rolled over” into the next school year. No effort was made to tailor the plan to his new and unprecedented kindergarten assignment or to recast the support and guidance necessary to comply with the minimal levels of appropriate resources and remedial coaching or supervisory support tailored for a tenured teacher on a CAP. The arbitrator determined that these arbitrary and capricious omissions materially and adversely affected the outcome of the teacher’s evaluations.

“While the District was entitled to require that Respondent work an additional year under an appropriately crafted Corrective Action Plan in 2017-2018 because he was absent for almost all of the 2016-2017 school year,” the arbitrator noted, “the District did not engage in meaningful collaborative dialogue with Respondent to modify or create a Corrective Action Plan reasonably tailored for a novice kindergarten teacher. Nor did the District provide sufficient or meaningful ancillary professional development support to Respondent at the outset or throughout 2017-2018.”

The arbitrator concluded, “The substantial defect in not redesigning the holdover Corrective Action Plan implemented in 2017-2018 and not providing in-person guidance and remediation by a supervisor and/or a master teacher with expertise in teaching kindergarten created an adverse material impact on Respondent’s teaching performance throughout 2017-2018. Simply rolling over a Corrective Action Plan to a subsequent year with a radically different teaching assignment, coupled with the minimal assistance to a teacher acclimating to an unfamiliar role, materially exacerbated the ineffectiveness of a teacher assigned at the last minute to teach kindergarten. The absence of a reformulated CAP and accompanying meaningful in-person support must be considered together with the circumstances raised by Respondent when he finally disputed the propriety of the decision by the (district) to terminate his employment following the 2018-2019 school year.”

The arbitrator determined that a CAP that is not specifically designed to address and foster improvement in a tenured teachers current teaching assignment cannot satisfy the requirement that tenured teachers be alerted to their unacceptable performance and that they be provided effective assistance in returning to satisfactory performance. The arbitrator concluded by returning the teacher to his placement, subject to a new and properly tailored corrective action plan and further ordered that the district provide proper support as contemplated by the TEACHNJ statute.

If you have any questions about this matter, board members should reach out to the board attorney or may feel free to call the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Dept. at (609) 278-5254.