In an Oct. 6 decision, the commissioner of education upheld an administrative law judge’s initial ruling, finding that a school district improperly reduced a teacher’s salary because it failed to file tenure charges.

The petitioner was a tenured teaching staff member in the district.  In or around May 2005, the petitioner enrolled in an online Ph.D. program at Breyer State University. In April 2006, she was notified that she had completed the necessary course work for, and was granted, a Doctor of Philosophy degree in “Curriculum and Assessment.”

The petitioner was placed in the “doctoral” column of the district’s salary guide for the 2006-2007 school year. After an investigation in October 2008, the Department of Higher Education issued a letter to the petitioner notifying her that her degree from Breyer State University did not meet the accreditation standards required for degree recognition.  She was also required to cease using the “Ph.D” degree designation at the end of her name.

On Dec. 2, 2008, the district notified the petitioner that she was being removed from the “doctoral” column and placed on the same step in the “Masters +30” column.  The petitioner appealed the district’s salary reduction but not the Department of Higher Education’s decision.

Subsequently, effective July 1, 2010, the legislature passed N.J.S.A. 18A:6-8.5. This statute stipulated that a school district could provide additional compensation  based on degrees or credit completion only from a “duly authorized institution of higher learning” — which Breyer University was not.

The commissioner held that the board violated petitioner’s tenure rights by unilaterally reducing her salary without filing tenure charges.  As such, both the administrative law judge and commissioner held that the petitioner should be reinstated to her doctoral salary guide from December 2, 2008 (when she was notified of her removal from the doctoral column) until the effective date of N.J.S.A. 18A:6-8.5., July 1, 2010.  No decision was made regarding petitioner’s ability to use the degree designation at the end of her name.

This decision serves as a reminder that boards of education must file tenure charges to seek a reduction in a tenured staff member’s salary and should not do so unilaterally. Questions regarding this case should be discussed with your board attorney or the NJSBA Department of Legal and Labor Relations at (609) 278-5254.