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4-30-13 Education Issues in the News
NJ Spotlight - State Arbitrators Rule on First Cases Brought Under New Tenure Law…A handful of early cases address misconduct and inefficiency, a charge stemming from teachers' classroom performance

Star Ledger - N.J.'s poor districts have limited role designing new schools, court rules

NJ Spotlight - Agenda: State Board of Education…TEACHNJ back on the agenda, along with career and technical education

Star Ledger -Police seize powerful bombs, shotgun shells from Edison High School student

NJ Spotlight - State Arbitrators Rule on First Cases Brought Under New Tenure Law…A handful of early cases address misconduct and inefficiency, a charge stemming from teachers' classroom performance

Eight months into New Jersey’s new teacher tenure law, state arbitrators have ruled on a trickle of disputed cases, many of them dealing with egregious cases of misconduct.

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But there have been notable exceptions. Newark is pioneering its own path, using the law to try to remove teachers because of their qualitative performance in the classroom -- technically a charge of “inefficiency.”

In total, 15 cases have been decided by a stable of specially assigned arbitrators, with the results posted to the state Department of Education’s website.

Nine have been for so-called conduct unbecoming, a broad category ranging from excessive absenteeism to a Woodbridge teacher accused of improperly helping students during the state testing.

In the majority of cases, the districts have prevailed -- either revoking tenure or meting out significant penalties. The Woodbridge case was one of three misconduct hearings in which the arbitrator upheld the district decision to fire the teacher outright.

In contrast, the six Newark cases have turned on charges against teachers related to their classroom performance and practice.

The results thus far have been more mixed. The district has won half of the cases, but two others were denied outright, with the teachers fully reinstated. In the sixth, the teacher was reinstated but denied a raise.

School administrators are just getting a feel for the new system. Experts say they expect far more charges of inefficiency next year. The law requires districts to file such charges if a teacher has two consecutive years of unsatisfactory evaluations.

In addition, the caseload does not count all the instances in which a settlement is reached on a tenure charge before a final determination is made by the arbitrator. These cases often lead to a teacher retiring or deciding to move to another district.

But the early rulings have also set some of the first legal precedents for the new system, yielding early clues as to how arbitrators will decide tenure disputes that used to be left to administrative law judges.

Here are three illustrative cases:

Woodbridge Board of Education and John Radzik (April 2013)

This is the first tenure decision stemming from the state’s investigation into charges that Woodbridge teachers and administrators improperly aided students in annual testing in 2010 and 2011.

Radzik was a third-grade teacher in the Avenel Street School and was accused of disclosing information about test items before the 2010 and 2011 NJASK tests, as well as influencing students’ answers during the tests.

His defense was a largely positive teaching record, including Teacher of the Year awards and commendation for his work in preparing students for the state exams through NJASK pep rallies and other programs. He also raised questions about training of staff to administer the tests and intense pressures on teachers to deliver test scores.

In a 46-page decision, arbitrator Joseph Licata found on behalf of the district, laying out a litany of testimony from witnesses for and against Radzik. But in the end, Licata said that even if Radzik maintained he was only trying to help his students, he was actually hurting them and the rest of the district.

“Even if Radzik acted purely to protect his students, there is a profound difference between giving a student a push in the right direction and riding the bicycle for him,” Licata wrote.

Newark School District and Darrin Hawthorne (February 2013)

The charge of inefficiency against Hawthorne, a sixth grade math teacher at the Bragaw Avenue School, is one of dozens of tenure charges filed by the administration of superintendent Cami Anderson under the new law last year.

But Hawthorne’s case proved a complex and nuanced one, in which the teacher ultimately prevailed. He was charged by the district with no less than 82 separate incidents of ineffective teaching, including poor evaluations and examples of vague questioning of students and using the wrong materials or curricula. As with other such cases, the problems had been long-running and included prior citations and disciplinary actions.

Hawthorne’s defense largely centered on what he called his poor relationship with his principal at Bragaw, saying the relationship clouded the evaluations. He also said that he had either made improvements where cited or the district had provided little support or specifics about his shortcomings.

In February, arbitrator Gerard Restaino ruled on behalf of Hawthorne, saying that his relationship with the principal had grown toxic. He cited one instance in which the two needed a mediator to communicate. And he said the evaluation and observation process from that time involved little interaction beyond brief conversations and emails.

“You can go into anyone’s classroom and find fault with something,” Restaino said in his ruling. “If you find fault with something, you are obligated to offer suggestions to correct that noted deficiency. That did not happen here.”

In closing, he added one suggestion: “It is also highly recommended that Mr. Hawthorne be transferred to a different school.”

School District of the City of Bridgeton and Sara Hancock (April 2013)

A 22-year veteran of the district, Hancock was a special education teacher at the Cherry Street School in the Cumberland County district when charges of “conduct unbecoming” were filed against her in February.

The accusation was that she had been verbally and physically abusive of students, with one allegation that she punched a student in the chest. The district brought in security videotape to try to make its case.

The teacher cited her clean teaching record, and that she did not punch the student but only tried to control her and protect other students. The teacher’s testimony went into great detail as to what happened in the incident, which had been videotaped.

Arbitrator Timothy Brown found in his decision that Hancock may have pushed the student and screamed in a threatening manner, the incident did not rise to hitting or striking the student. He also found it was isolated in Hancock’s 22 years as a teacher, with no other blemishes on her record.

But while he did not uphold the district’s decision to terminate the teacher, Brown did rule in favor of a 120-day unpaid suspension. According to the ruling, Hancock will return to work next month.

“I am persuaded that as a consequence of the suspension issued herein, Respondent will correct her conduct and will not engage in conduct unbecoming in the future,” Brown said. “As a result, I find that dismissal is not warranted here.”

Star Ledger - N.J.'s poor districts have limited role designing new schools, court rules

Salvador Rizzo/The Star-Ledger By Salvador Rizzo/The Star-Ledger The Star-Ledger
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on April 29, 2013 at 2:48 PM, updated April 29, 2013 at 3:02 PM

TRENTON — New Jersey's poorest school districts cannot design or acquire land for any new schools to be bankrolled by the state, an appeals court ruled today, dealing a setback to advocacy groups pushing for more local control.

Building new schools in the 31 poorest school districts — including Newark, Camden, Trenton and other urban hubs — for more than a decade has been the responsibility of a state agency now called the Schools Development Authority.

Critics say the SDA has been moving at a slow pace in recent years, with "cookie-cutter" designs that don't cater to local needs. They argued in court that the state should delegate more power to school districts to get more schools built faster.

The 2007 state law that established the SDA says it "may" delegate some powers to the districts. But the agency chose not to give them the ability to draft blueprints or acquire land for their new schools.

State officials should retain those powers in order to control costs, the SDA reasoned. "These functions have fundamental effects on defining the scope and cost of a school facilities project," the agency said.

The appellate court judges, Michael Haas and Jamie Happas, agreed.

"The Legislature granted the SDA the discretion to determine what aspects of a school facilities projects could be delegated to an SDA district," they wrote. "The SDA's regulations are therefore valid and no additional regulations are necessary at this time."

The Education Law Center, a Newark-based nonprofit representing the 31 districts, took the case to court after the SDA passed regulations last year only giving districts a limited role in the process.

David Sciarra, the group's executive director, said the appeals court ruling today effectively cuts out the districts entirely and that it would enable the SDA to build more "off-the-shelf, cookie-cutter schools" across the state.

State lawmakers envisioned a role for districts in the construction process, he said, but under the appeals court ruling, districts can only help monitor the construction and demolition of school buildings.

"They're just not going to do it," Sciarra said. "What's the point? All the major components on the projects, by the time there's a groundbreaking, those have all been decided by the SDA. What's the point?"

The Education Law Center will "seriously consider" appealing to the state Supreme Court, Sciarra said.


NJ Spotlight - Agenda: State Board of Education…TEACHNJ back on the agenda, along with career and technical education

By John Mooney, April 30, 2013 in Education

Date: Wednesday, May 1, 2013

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Time: 10 a.m.

Place: New Jersey Department of Education, 1st floor conference room, 100 River View Plaza, Trenton

What they are doing: After a busy couple of months, the state Board of Education will have less on its agenda, but nonetheless some important issues to address. Top of the list will be the next stage for the Christie administration’s regulations for the new teacher tenure law, Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey Act (TEACHNJ). The board will also hear from career and technical education experts and educators on the state of that sector of schooling.

TEACHNJ proceeds: Not much has changed -- at least not in public -- since the administration’s new teacher evaluation code continues its way through the regulatory process. The administration did make some small changes to the proposal following last month’s public comment, but many of the most controversial provisions about the use of student test scores in measuring teachers look largely intact. The board’s president, Arcelio Aponte, said he did not expect a great deal more discussion from the board on Wednesday, but he did not rule it out. “This is the opportunity for the board members to raise anything new they want to discuss,” he said. The regulations will have another round of public comment next month.

Plenty of comment: The board heard from close to 150 individuals about the new TEACHNJ code, from concerns that it may discourage some from teaching in low-performing schools to whether the state will provide additional funds. In each case, the department said it would monitor employment patterns but would not be supplying additional money besides existing funding earmarked for professional development. The questions and the responses are included in the latest revisions.

Jobs for kids: The board annually devotes one of its monthly meetings to career and technical education, and this year it is bringing in both educators and policymakers to discuss the state of the programs. Among those presenting will be the state’s deputy labor commissioner Aaron Fichtner, discussing the latest data about the job market and what it can teach the state’s public schools. The board will also hear from educators in both comprehensive high schools and specialized ones about specific programs and curricula, including agricultural sciences and another model for “green” construction, design, and energy. Teacher preparation for such studies will be another topic, with a presentation on an ongoing “alternate route” pilot for career and technical education teachers.

Other code: After several months of new administrative code being proposed and voted on, the board has a relatively quiet month beyond the deliberation about TEACHNJ. Other code on the agenda but drawing far less discussion and comment so far has been that for adult education and for school requirements to ensure equity and access.


Star Ledger -Police seize powerful bombs, shotgun shells from Edison High School student

James Queally/The Star-Ledger By James Queally/The Star-Ledger The Star-Ledger
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on April 29, 2013 at 10:10 PM, updated April 30, 2013 at 11:11 AM

EDISON — A handful of homemade explosive devices, stuffed with gunpowder and ready to detonate, was seized from the home of a 16-year-old Edison High School student Sunday night, township Police Chief Thomas Bryan said tonight.

Police found fuses attached to "less than six" carbon dioxide cartridges packed with gunpowder when they searched the teenager’s Edison home, Bryan said. Officers also recovered fireworks and several disassembled shotgun shells, which are normally packed with pellets that can be used as shrapnel in an explosive device, according to Bryan.

While Bryan said the weapons could have been deadly, police do not believe the teen had a specific plan to detonate the devices.

"There is no immediate threat that was able to be determined," said Sgt. Robert Dudash, a township police spokesman.

If the weapons had exploded, Bryan said they could have killed someone. He likened the devices to the shrapnel-loaded pressure cooker bombs used in the Boston Marathon attacks earlier this month.

"Anything that’s stuffed with gunpowder and shrapnel and BBs and has that much force can certainly do a lot of damage," Bryan said. "Think about what happened in Boston. They were pressure cookers and how big are they?"

The teenager, whose identity was withheld due to his age, was charged with possession of homemade bomb devices and released into a relative’s custody, Bryan said. The 16-year-old was interviewed by police after his arrest, but Bryan would not elaborate.

Police learned of the teenager when a township resident responded to a reward flier seeking information about bomb threats made against the high school earlier this month, Bryan said.

The threats caused evacuations at the school on April 15, 16, and 17. The teen has not been charged in the threats.
Edison Schools Superintendent Richard O’Malley said the student has been removed from Edison High School for the time being.

"I am disheartened to learn that one of our students is involved in this type of activity," O’Malley said via e-mail tonight. "However, I am very grateful and pleased in the tireless efforts of the Edison Police Department in making this arrest."

The Federal Bureau of Investigation was also notified of the arrest, according to Bryan, who said the agency has been helping police investigate the bomb threats made against the school.

Police found threatening notes outside the school and written on a bathroom wall on April 15, 16 and 17, which threatened that a bomb would go off at the school.

A suspicious package, reported at the school last week, Bryan said was determined to be a suitcase left behind by a teacher.

NJ.com staff writer Brian Amaral contributed to this report.


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