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Appellate Division Affirms Tuition Reimbursement Issue Not Subject to Arbitration

By on April 11, 2017 in Labor & Employment with 1 Comment

On March 2, 2017, the New Jersey Appellate Division issued an unpublished decision in Hillsborough Township Board of Education v. Hillsborough Township Education Association in which it affirmed the Public Employment Relations Commission’s (“PERC”) determination that an issue involving tuition reimbursement was preempted by statute and therefore not arbitrable. This case arose from employees whose requests for tuition reimbursement were denied because the courses were not related to the employees’ current or future job responsibilities pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:6-8.5.

In 2013, four individuals employed by the Hillsborough Township Board of Education (“Board”) sought tuition reimbursement from the Board for various courses and seminars they pursued. When their requests were denied, they filed a grievance. In March 2014, the Board found that the courses do not apply to the employees’ current or future job responsibilities and therefore denied the requests.

Thereafter, the Hillsborough Township Education Association (“HTEA”) filed a Request for Submission to a Panel of Arbitrators with PERC on behalf of the employees. In response, the Board filed a Petition for Scope of Negotiations Determination arguing that N.J.S.A. 18A:6-8.5 preempts arbitration on this issue. PERC agreed with the Board, and the HTEA appealed PERC’s decision to the Appellate Division.

On appeal, PERC reviewed the plain meaning of N.J.S.A. 18A:6-8.5, which provides, in pertinent part:

In order for a board of education to provide to an employee tuition assistance for coursework taken at an institution of higher education or additional compensation… [t]he tuition assistance or additional compensation shall be provided only for a course or degree related to the employee’s current or future job responsibilities.

In addition, N.J.S.A. 18A:6-8.5 requires that the employee obtain approval from the Superintendent prior to enrolling in the course for which he or she seeks tuition assistance. If the request is denied, the employee may appeal such denial to the board of education. Moreover, the Appellate Division relied upon Borough of Keyport v. International Union of Operating Engineers, 222 N.J. 314 (2015) for the proposition that a subject which is fully or partially preempted by statute or regulation is not negotiable and therefore not arbitrable.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division reasoned that N.J.S.A. 18A:6-8.5 is a mandatory statute that expressly sets a limit on whether tuition assistance is available. Further, the Appellate Division found that the statute leaves nothing to the discretion of the Board as the public employer. Therefore, the issue cannot be subject to negotiations or arbitration.

The Appellate Division also advised that rather than filing a grievance, an employee would first need to challenge the Superintendent’s denial of the tuition reimbursement request to the board of education as set forth in N.J.S.A. 18A:6-8.5(b). Thereafter, any further appeal could be filed with the Commissioner of Education.

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Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev

About the Author

About the Author:

Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq. concentrates her practice on the representation of boards of education and charter schools in all areas of school law including: labor and employment, special education, Section 504, student discipline, FERPA, Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, student residency, civil rights, tenure, OPRA, and OPMA. In connection with these representations, she is experienced in handling matters before State and Federal courts, including the Office of Administrative Law. Ms. Dev is an experienced special education litigator and defends school districts in due process hearings from inception through trial. In addition, she has handled matters before governmental agencies, including the U.S. Office for Civil Rights and New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. Ms. Dev routinely conducts training and seminars, drafts policies and manuals, and provides strategic advice to school administrators regarding school law issues. Ms. Dev was recently recognized as one of South Jersey’s Awesome Attorneys as published by South Jersey Magazine. She is licensed to practice law in New Jersey, the District Court for the District of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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There is 1 Brilliant Comment

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  1. Anon says:

    This is a crime against our teachers and STUDENTS! How can someone say these classes are not in their current or future job opportunities? Education in NJ is crumbling for reasons like this.

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