Boards of education prevailed recently in the area of tuition reimbursement for staff members. The N.J. Appellate Division released an unpublished decision of Hillsborough Township Board of Education and Hillsborough Township Education Association (March 2, 2017), which provided long-awaited guidance in the area of tuition reimbursement. In the case, the appeals court ruled that the decision as to what is considered a current or future job responsibility is non-negotiable, and therefore not subject to arbitration.

In this case, the Appellate Division rejected the union’s appeal of a Public Employment Relations Commission finding that the matter was non-negotiable and non-arbitrable.

The case involved four school district employees who sought tuition reimbursement and column movement for having taken various college courses. The superintendent determined the courses were not related to the employees’ current or future job responsibilities, and denied the requested reimbursement, thereby giving rise to a union grievance. Prior to the matter being heard by an arbitrator, the board filed a scope of negotiations petition with PERC asserting the matter was not subject to arbitration because it was non-negotiable. In support of its claim, the board relied upon N.J.S.A. 18A:6-8.5(c). PERC agreed with the Board and restrained the arbitration.

After a thorough review of the law on negotiability of an issue, the Appellate Division turned to the statute in question, N.J.S.A. 18A:6-8.5(c). This statute was enacted in 2010 in an effort to address issues related to “diploma mills” and the relationship between a teacher’s advanced education and its impact upon student learning. The law addresses an employee’s eligibility for “employee tuition assistance for coursework taken at an institution of higher education, or additional compensation upon the acquisition of additional academic credits or completion of a degree program at an institution of higher education,” and provides the following minimum requirements must be met:

  1. The institution must be accredited (duly-authorized institution of higher education);
  2. The employee will have obtained prior approval of the superintendent prior to enrollment in the course; and
  3. The course or degree must be related to the employee’s current or future job responsibilities.

(The requirement set forth in item 2 does not apply to column movement.)

While the first two criteria of this statute are seemingly clear, there was much uncertainty as to what was considered “current or future job responsibilities”. As such, boards of education, in many instances, were left to defend against grievance arbitrations regarding denial of sought-after tuition reimbursement.

Here, the Appellate Division held such denials are no longer subject to review by an arbitrator. As the Legislature had expressly exempted the matter from negotiations by the passage of N.J.S.A.18A:6-8.5, any denial based upon a failure of the course/degree to relate to an employee’s current or future job responsibilities cannot be raised before an arbitrator.

However, the Appellate Division never answered the question of what is considered a “future job responsibility,” nor did it provide any guidance in the area.  Rather, the Appellate Division merely held this question of “future job responsibility” was an issue which should be determined by the commissioner of education on appeal from the board of education’s denial.

In so holding, the Appellate Division reasoned the statute provided the superintendent no discretion regarding the question of current or future job responsibility. Indeed, the Appellate Division held the superintendent must deny the course if it was not related to the current or future job responsibility, which would permit the employee to appeal to the board of education.  If the board of education likewise denied the request, the individual employee could appeal to the commissioner of education, as a “decision by a board of education is reviewable in the first instance by the state commissioner of education.”  Thus, there was a built-in mechanism for appeal of the superintendent’s denial.

It is important to note the Appellate Division also specifically found, by extension, that a denial of column advancement based upon credits/degree not being related to an employee’s current or future job responsibilities was not subject to arbitration, as the statute explicitly preempts the matter as well. Thus, it is non-negotiable.

In short, without answering the question of how the determination is made as to “future job responsibilities,” the Appellate Division provided boards of education much-needed flexibility and discretion. Indeed, this decision stands for the proposition that the superintendent’s decision cannot be challenged by the union through arbitration. The only avenue to “appeal” the denial of tuition reimbursement or column movement is through the commissioner of education.

Historically, appeals to the commissioner of education of a board of education decision are adjudicated under an arbitrary or capricious standard. So long as the board of education has a rational basis for its decision-making, the commissioner will give deference to the board of education.