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NJ Supreme Court Reverses; Refuses to Allow “Tyranny of Labels” to Compromise Analysis in Tenure Case

By on February 5, 2020 in Labor & Employment with 0 Comments

Last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided a teacher tenure case which it warned served as a cautionary tale that “demonstrates the ability of labels to cloud an analysis.”  Melnyk v. Bd. of Educ. of Delsea Reg’l High Sch. Dist., A-77-18, ___ N.J. ____ (January 30, 2020).  The Delsea Regional School District (“District”) had employed the petitioner, Paula Melnyk, as a tenured special education teacher since 1991.  In 2002, the district began also employing Melnyk to work evenings as a teacher in its after-hours alternative program, in addition to her position as a special education teacher during the regular school day.  Melnyk held the position as a teacher in the alternative program every year from 2002 through the end of the 2014-2015 school year, except for the 2009-2010 school year.  In August 2014, the District decided to hire another, non-tenured teacher to teach the after-school program hours previously assigned to Melnyk.

Melnyk filed a petition of appeal, asserting that the District could not reduce her hours without violating her tenure rights to the teaching position in the alternative program.  The District accepted that Melnyk held tenure in her regular position during the school day, but argued that she did not acquire tenure as a teacher in the alternative program because it was an “extracurricular position” which did not require additional certification beyond what was required by Melnyk’s normal position as a special education teacher.  An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) accepted the District’s argument and ruled that Melnyk had not acquired tenure in the alternative school position.  The Commissioner of Education adopted the ALJ’s initial decision, and the Appellate Division affirmed. 

On further appeal, however, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, holding that the ALJ, Commissioner, and Appellate Division had all misconstrued the applicable law in accepting the District’s argument.  The Supreme Court held that the case should have been easily decided through a simple application of its earlier precedent in Spiewak v. Summit Bd. of Educ., 90 N.J. 63, 77 (1982).  Under Spiewak, Melnyk should have been entitled to tenure in the alternative program teaching position, because “staff members who work in positions for which a certificate is required, who hold valid certificates, and who have worked the requisite number of years, are eligible for tenure unless they come within the explicit exceptions in N.J.S.A. 18A:28-5 or related statutes such as N.J.S.A. 18A:16-1.1.”  Id. at 81. 

In this case, however, the Supreme Court noted that this “clear analysis was sidetracked by labeling Melnyk’s position in the [alternative] program as ‘extracurricular’ and . . . . imputing a requirement particular to traditional extracurricular activities to the program, namely that Melnyk could not acquire tenure rights to her position . . . unless that program required her to hold an additional instructional certification than that which she already held for her full-time regular education position.”  The Court rejected the imposition of this additional requirement, reasoning:  “There can be no tyranny of labels permitted in this analysis.”  Instead, the Court found that the requirements of the tenure statutes, as interpreted by Spiewak, were clearly met under the undisputed facts.  The teacher was entitled to tenure in the additional position, since it required a teaching certificate and she had worked in the position for the requisite number of years set forth in the tenure statute. 

Both parties had conceded before the Commissioner that a teacher serving exclusively in the alternative program position would have acquired tenure.  Since the alternative program position required a teaching certificate, there was no basis for the District to have treated Melnyk differently simply because she was already employed in a separate teaching position, for which she had already acquired tenure, which required the same instructional certification as the additional position.  The Supreme Court refused to allow the District to avoid Spiewak’s application by applying the label of “extracurricular” to the position, noting that school districts are required by State regulations to offer their students access to such alternative programs, either through their own district or through alternative programs outside the district, either of which must comply with State regulatory standards.

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Cameron R. Morgan

About the Author

About the Author:

Mr. Morgan has served the public school districts of the State of New Jersey in the specialized area of school law, representing boards of education in all aspects of their legal needs, with a focus on general counsel services, civil litigation, special education, administrative law, collective negotiations, labor and employment, and appellate practice. He has served as Board Solicitor to dozens of school districts, guiding district administrators through the diverse range of issues affecting the public schools, from personnel matters, tenure cases, and the range of issues that frequently arise at public board meetings, to student disciplinary matters, residency disputes, and homelessness issues, to complex matters involving the budgetary process or First Amendment rights.

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