By Ben Velderman
TRENTON, N.J. – The tenure case of an elementary teacher accused of streaking through an apartment complex’s parking lot has secured a place in New Jersey history, perhaps for multiple reasons.
On December 1, Mark C. Bringhurst became the first educator to be fired under The Garden State’s new process for deciding teacher tenure cases. Bringhurst was found guilty of conduct unbecoming of a teacher.
The new streamlined process – which is a product of the education reform bill that was signed by Gov. Chris Christie last August – went so well that not a single discouraging word was heard from the New Jersey Education Association (Bringhurst’s teacher union) after the verdict was delivered.
Even Bringhurst’s own attorney praised the process as “expeditious.”
Under the old rules, firing a tenured teacher in New Jersey was a time-consuming and expensive process. The cases went through administrative law court, and typically lasted from two to five years. Except for a brief 120-day window, a school district was required to pay the teacher’s salary during the entire process, usually pay a substitute teacher, and pay several years’ worth of attorney fees.
New Jersey’s school districts could only afford to fire the egregious offenders. And as a result, an untold number of incompetent or morally questionable educators were left in the classroom, or allowed to quietly leave and find jobs in new districts.
EAGnews was among the first to bring attention to the long process in New Jersey, and developed a well-received chart to illustrate it.
The reform law – the Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey Act (TEACHNJ) – has mostly corrected that problem. Now, when a school board officially files tenure charges against a teacher, the process is sent to an arbitrator and is limited to 105 days. The costs of arbitration are capped at $7,500 and are paid by the state, reports the New York Times.
An arbitrator’s decision is final and can only be appealed on the grounds that the proper procedures weren’t followed, notes NJSpotlight.com.
Still a lengthy process
The 105-day limit has received a lot of favorable attention – as it should – but it doesn’t tell the whole story. As the Bringhurst case demonstrates, it still takes far more than three-and-a-half months to fire a tenured teacher in New Jersey.
Bringhurst, a fifth-grade teacher, was arrested on the evening of March 21 after police were alerted that a naked man was seen sprinting through the parking lot of an apartment complex, reports TheDailyJournal.com.
“Using the witness’ description of the suspect and partial license plate number for his Ford Escort, (a police officer) located the car in an adult bookstore parking lot,” reports the Daily Journal.
Bringhurst initially told the officer he was not the streaker, though he admitted to the incident upon further questioning. The teacher said he met someone online who dared him to do it, and that he’d done the same thing about a year earlier, reports the Daily Journal.
Vineland Public School officials suspended Bringhurst with pay following his arrest.
On August 8 – nearly five months after Bringhurst’s initial arrest – the Vineland school board voted to fire him. The district filed official written tenure charges with the New Jersey Department of Education two weeks later, the news site reports.
The case was assigned to arbitrator Robert C. Gifford on September 13, and a hearing was held on October 18. The record was officially closed by October 31, and Gifford delivered his final verdict on December 1.
From Bringhurst’s arrest to his firing, the process lasted 255 days. That’s more than double the much-publicized 105-day limit, but it’s still far quicker than the old, convoluted process that was typically measured in years.
Still, the new firing procedure isn’t without its flaws.
The reform law calls for 25 “specially selected arbitrators” to decide New Jersey’s tenure cases, reports NJSpotlight.com. They are jointly selected by state education and union officials.
Any arbitrator who wants to stay employed will logically try to keep both school officials and union leaders happy. In all likelihood that means a roughly equal number of victories for both sides.
So some unworthy teachers will win their tenure cases and remain in the classroom, all in the name of fairness. On the flip side, some teachers who may not deserve termination may find the door, anyway, if an arbitrator has not ruled in favor of a school district lately.
That part of the new system should be fixed, perhaps by having arbitrators independently chosen so they are not beholden to either side. Even in an expedited case, justice should be the goal.