Last week, in State Operated School District of Jersey City v. Harris, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court issued a decision upholding the very lenient standard which arbitrators use to determine tenure charges under the TEACHNJ Act.

In the decision, the arbitrator ruled that the district proved that an African-American fourth-grade teacher, Harris, had engaged in conduct that was detrimental to her students. According to the decision, the arbitrator found that Harris singled out students who were failing by making them stand in front of the entire class, and then she separated those students on the basis of skin color. For her part, Harris argued that she wanted her students to feel the sting of discrimination so they would know how to act in future racially-charged situations.

The Arbitrator’s Decision In reaching a decision, the arbitrator concluded that Harris’ actions, while demonstrating exceptionally poor judgment and causing damage to her students’ self-esteem, were not intentionally cruel nor did she have an intent to cause racial animus. Therefore, after concluding that the teacher engaged in misconduct, the arbitrator imposed a 262-day suspension without pay, and ordered Harris back into the classroom. The district appealed to the Law Division, which upheld the decision, and then took an appeal before the Appellate Division.  In pursuing the appeal, the district argued that the arbitrator either exceeded his authority in returning Harris to the classroom, or that such an award violated public policy, given the racial impetus underlying the charges.

Appellate Decision On appeal, the Appellate Division first noted that the law requires an extremely deferential standard when reviewing arbitration decisions.  The court then indicated that while it may have reached a conclusion different than that of the arbitrator, it was unable to conclude that the arbitrator abused his discretion because the law does not require that each teacher found to have engaged in inappropriate conduct be terminated.

Accordingly, the court found that the arbitrator properly exercised his discretion, both in issuing a long suspension and in returning Harris to district employment. In addition, the court held that even where an arbitration decision implicates a clear mandate of public policy, the court must apply a “reasonably debatable” standard of review, which requires that the decision be upheld, so long as it is reasonably debatable.

This decision reinforces the difficulty that exists where boards of education seek to overturn an unfavorable arbitration decision and underscores the need to closely examine both the arbitrator’s decision and applicable law in pursuing an appeal of a TEACHNJ decision before the courts. Boards are encouraged to discuss this decision with the board attorney or call the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Services Department for more information.