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South Orange-Maplewood Education Association v. Board of Education of School District of South Orange and Maplewood

Decided: January 18, 1977.


Halpern, Botter and Kolovsky. The opinion of the court was delivered by Botter, J.A.D.


[146 NJSuper Page 459] Plaintiff brought this action for specific enforcement of provisions of an agreement relating to

sabbatical leave for qualifying teachers. Plaintiff moved for summary judgment and defendant made a cross-motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, contending that the Commissioner of Education (Commissioner) has exclusive jurisdiction over the controversy. The trial judge concluded that the case involves "examination into the policy as to whether a teacher is entitled, as of right, to a sabbatical after seven years of service or whether that sabbatical still lies within the discretion of the local board of education." Finding that the expertise of the Commissioner would be helpful, the trial judge dismissed the action for lack of jurisdiction and ordered it transferred to the Commissioner for resolution. The issue on this appeal is whether the lower court, rather than the Commissioner, had jurisdiction to interpret and enforce these contractual provisions. We conclude that the court had jurisdiction, and we reverse.

The parties entered into a written agreement for the school years 1973-1975, with plaintiff acting as the exclusive representative for collective negotiation on behalf of non-supervisory teachers and other personnel employed by the defendant school board. Article X of the agreement governs sabbatical leave. It provides, in part, that

Any teacher who has completed seven or more years of continuous, full-time service * * * may be granted a leave of absence of one or two semesters for study or travel. After each subsequent period of seven or more years of service, a further leave for study or travel may be granted.

Other provisions of Article X deal with the salary payable to a teacher while on sabbatical leave, the procedures for making application for leave, and certain conditions for such approval. The agreement provides further that not more than 2% of the teachers shall be granted sabbatical leave in any school year. Article X also established a sabbatical review committee to recommend the granting of leave to applicants based upon benefit to the school system (the teacher must demonstrate a relationship between a proposed

leave for travel purposes and the teacher's duties), with preference to teachers who have not yet received a sabbatical leave.

Seven teachers applied for sabbatical leave for the 1975-1976 school year. The pleadings show that the sabbatical review committee approved the leaves for all seven applicants. Although the 2% limitation in the contract was not violated and all applicants were qualified, the school board granted leaves to only five of the seven. The board advised the two rejected applicants that "The constraints of budget prevented us from acceding to all the requests for sabbatical leave."

Plaintiff contended that the agreement made the granting of sabbatical leave mandatory when all contractual conditions were satisfied. The board took the position that its provisions, especially the words, "may be granted," made the granting of such leaves permissive and not mandatory. Plaintiff then invoked the agreement's grievance procedures and, over defendant's objection, the matter was submitted to advisory, nonbinding arbitration. When this did not resolve the disputes, plaintiff filed its action in the Chancery Division.

N.J.S.A. 18A:6-9 gives the Commissioner jurisdiction over "all controversies and disputes arising under the school laws, excepting those governing higher education, or under the rules of the state board or of the commissioner." Defendant contends that the dispute here involves a number of school laws, including the mandate in the Education Clause of our Constitution (N.J. Const. (1947), Art. VIII, ยง 4, par. 1) for a thorough and efficient system of education, the management of local schools by school boards (N.J.S.A. 18A:10-1), the employment and regulation of employees (N.J.S.A. 18A:11-1), the power to fix and alter their compensation (N.J.S.A. 18A:16-1) and the power to make rules governing terms of employment (N.J.S.A. 18A:27-4 and N.J.S.A. 18A:28-5).

We see the issue differently. N.J.S.A. 34:13A-5.3 authorizes a public employer to enter into a binding agreement with public employees on terms and conditions of employment. Sabbatical leave is clearly a term and condition of employment. It is akin to wage and vacation benefits. The board exercised its authority under the school laws to fix the compensation and other terms of employment through negotiation with employees' representatives. The ...

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