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10-2-13 Education in the News
NJ Spotlight - Low-Profile Board Rules in High-Stakes Misconduct Cases Against Educators… Examiners rule on serious charges that could lead to loss of license for teachers, administrators

NJSpotlight - Profile: Meet the New Boss at the New Jersey Education Association…A self-professed numbers guy and union man, the NJEA's Wendell Steinhauer has both eyes trained on the future of his profession

NJ Spotlight - Low-Profile Board Rules in High-Stakes Misconduct Cases Against Educators… Examiners rule on serious charges that could lead to loss of license for teachers, administrators

John Mooney | October 2, 2013


Often the last stop for miscreant educators, a little-known state board has seen its caseload of teachers and administrators accused of serious misconduct more than double in the last decade.

The State Board of Examiners, an eight-member board of teachers and administrators appointed by the state education commissioner, last year heard 97 cases of teachers accused of criminal or other serious wrongdoing that put their teaching license in doubt.

That number represents a tiny fraction of the statewide teaching force, which tops 100,000, and it pertains to a process that is separate altogether from the one for teachers found to be ineffective in the classroom.

Still, in an overwhelming majority of cases that reached the board, it decided to either rescind or suspend the educator’s certification, which is practically a death sentence for a public-education career. Of those 97 cases, 85 ended in decisions to rescind licenses.

That total is more than double the 37 cases decided in 2002. The increase was due to a number of factors, said a state education department spokesman.

“The reporting is a lot better, and technology has made it easier to track some of the cases,” said spokesman Michael Yaple. “Plus, we’re simply getting more aggressive.”

The board last month had one of its higher-profile cases with its decision to rescind the administrator and teaching certificates of Michael Ritacco, the former Toms River superintendent who this year pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges. Ritacco was one of the state’s most prominent – and most highly paid – school superintendents before his downfall.

“The commissioner has long held that teachers serve as role models for their students,” the ruling read. “Clearly Ritacco’s conviction indicates that his actions here are not those of a role model. The board therefore believes that the only appropriate sanction in this case is the revocation of Ritacco’s certificates.”

That was a pretty easy decision, and even Ritacco hardly challenged the process, according to the final ruling.

More commonly, the board hears up to a dozen cases a month – and investigates many more beyond that – of teachers and administrators accused of everything from sexual misconduct to breaches in state test security.

Over the last couple of years, the state board has heard or investigated 45 cases related to possible violations of test security, part of a widespread sweep by the state Department of Education of schools where test results have been suspect.

Meanwhile, sexual misconduct continues to be a prevailing theme. About half of the cases heard by the board last month related to possible sexual misconduct, including the case of an art teacher who allegedly sent sexually suggestive texts to a student.

“A lot of teachers are getting into trouble with what are inappropriate relations,” Yaple said. “You see it often with texting or social media, it all leaves a record that can be traced.”

In another case, it was a prior arrest record that came to light.

“It is well established that the State Board of Examiners has the right to revoke a certificate where the teacher was involved in criminal activities, even if the activities were unrelated to the classroom,” the decision read.

The Board of Examiners is a different track from the new process in which arbitrators are hearing an increasing number of tenure charges against teachers, following the enactment of the new tenure-reform law.

In those cases, teachers can be brought up on tenure charges for so-called inefficiency or failures to teach effectively.

In cases before the Board of Examiners, the judgments are significantly more serious, not just whether educators should lose tenure protections in a given district but whether they should be certified to teach or even be in a school at all.

In many of the cases, a teacher may not have even been brought up as yet on tenure charges. Almost a third of cases last year involved findings discovered in the required review of criminal history.

Overall, the bulk of the cases relate to potential criminal misbehavior, with almost half coming through sources ranging from prosecutors or court dockets as reported in the press.

“We get a sizable number from the courts, and even just reading newspaper articles,” Yaple said.

The increase in the number of cases has been significant enough that the board has added an investigator to its staff of four employees

NJSpotlight - Bottom of Form

Profile: Meet the New Boss at the New Jersey Education Association…A self-professed numbers guy and union man, the NJEA's Wendell Steinhauer has both eyes trained on the future of his profession


Who he is: Newly elected president of the New Jersey Education Association, effective September 1, 2013

Age: 56

Why he matters: As head of the 200,000-member NJEA, Steinhauer leads arguably the state’s most powerful union at a pivotal time of change to schools and employees statewide. The new president comes aboard as Gov. Chris Christie, a frequent adversary, is running for reelection and being named a top contender for the U.S. presidency in 2016.

Where he's coming from: The son of a union man and career math teacher, Steinhauer recognizes the political challenges faced by organized labor -- particularly teachers -- these days. He says he wants the union to adapt and be more proactive, saying the NJEA should do more to showcase its research and hands-on help to teachers. But he’s not one to back off in a tussle, a familiar place for the NJEA over the past few years with Christie in office.

On the record: “One of the things I’ve learned is we can’t operate in the same style we used to. We have to be more nimble in our decision-making, and instead of reacting, let’s be the leader on the issues.”

A Christie thaw? The governor and the NJEA have quieted the combat a little in the past year, especially with the passage of the tenure reform bill that both negotiated. But volleys still get lobbed now and again, and it's no surprise that the NJEA backed Democratic challenger Barbara Buono for governor.

Why Buono: The NJEA was among the first to endorse Buono, a Democratic state Senator and longtime ally. “She’s our 100 percent candidate -- very seldom do you get a candidate who matches up on all the issues.”

But just in case: “I look forward to working with [Gov. Christie] on issues where we can find common ground. I don’t think he’ll lay down his weapons, nor do I think he would expect that of us, but I’d welcome the chance to sit down with him.”

No lightweight: Steinhauer was a wrestler in high school in eastern Pennsylvania, and ended up coaching wrestling at Riverside High School. He was a middleweight, at 167 pounds.

Neither is the NJEA: The NJEA is the third-largest state affiliate of the National Education Association, behind only California and New York.

Salary: The union does not release salary figures, but Steinhauer is surely in line with his predecessor, Barbara Keshishian, who was paid more than $270,000 in 2012. It’s a dicey topic, one that has generated Christie’s jabs over the years.

The math teacher: Always adept in math -- “I liked that there was always an answer in math,” he said -- the education major from Clarion State College applied on a long shot in 1975 to teach math at Riverside High School. He didn’t leave until 2005, to become secretary-treasurer of the NJEA.

The union leader: During his stint at Riverside he was recruited for the negotiations team of the school local. “I was kind of the numbers guy, and became the negotiation chair for the next 22 years.” He was elected the Riverside president in 1999 and then county president. He ran successfully for statewide secretary-treasurer in 2005, and followed the usual succession to be elected president this spring.

Learning the ropes: As county president, he was appointed to be a National Education Association director and started to see the operations of the state and national organizations. “That opened my eyes, it’s where I saw I could make a difference.”

The good old (union) days: “Compared to now, it was much better then,” he said. "There were confrontations, but you could always sit down and work it out. Nobody was trying to get anything over on anyone.”

Teacher evaluation: It is the hot issue of the moment with the roll-out of the new evaluation systems in every district statewide. While part of the final negotiations that crafted the law, Steinhauer said its implementation could have been better paced. “There is a lot of anxiety about it -- it’s moving too fast and without the proper training.”

Other hot issues: State funding, school construction, charter schools are all in the NJEA’s cross-hairs, but Steinhauer also wants the union to think ahead about what’s coming next. “It’s been a tough few years, and I’m looking for us to have new life, new ideas.”

Hometown: When not clocking an estimated 20,000 air-miles a year, Steinhauer lives in Riverside with his wife, Mary. She also teaches at Riverside High School, and has succeeded her husband as the Burlington County union president. They have three children, the youngest still in college and none yet pursuing careers in either education or organized labor. “They want to find their own path.”

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