On appeal from Superior Court, Chancery Division, Middlesex County.
Halpern, Larner and King. The opinion of the court was delivered by Larner, J.A.D.
[161 NJSuper Page 156] This is another appeal involving the recurring question in the ever-present controversies between boards of education and representative organizations of teachers relating to the arbitrability of grievances. The parties herein were governed by a collective bargaining agreement, effective from July 1, 1975 through June 30, 1976,
which provided for arbitration as the final method of resolution of a teacher's grievance.
The grievance procedure, including arbitration, covers a broad spectrum of disputes in the following language:
"A grievance" is a claim based upon an event or condition which affects the welfare and/or terms and conditions of employment of a teacher and/or the interpretation, meaning, or application of any of the provisions of this agreement.
The particular controversy underlying this litigation arose out of the decision by the Board of Education of the School District of the Township of Edison (board) on August 10, 1976 to deny salary increments to three teachers for the ensuing year. The Edison Township Education Association (Association) filed grievances on behalf of these teachers in compliance with the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement. After adverse decisions at the various levels of administrative grievance procedures, the Association demanded arbitration as a final step in the resolution of the dispute relating to the three teachers.
The board agreed to submit the limited question of arbitrability to the arbitrator, who concluded that the grievances were arbitrable. Thereupon the board filed a complaint seeking to enjoin arbitration of the merits of the dispute on the ground that the right of the board to withhold increments is a management decision beyond the scope of permissible arbitration, and that the Commissioner of Education has exclusive jurisdiction to consider the matter.
The trial judge dismissed the complaint for lack of jurisdiction apparently on the basis that injunctive relief is cognizable before the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) in conjunction with its statutory prerogative to determine the scope of collective negotiations under N.J.S.A. 34:13A-5.4(d), citing Plainfield Bd. of Ed. v. Plainfield Ed. Ass'n , 144 N.J. Super. 521 (App. Div. 1976).
Reliance by the trial judge upon Plainfield as the basis for dismissal was unwarranted. The litigation herein
does not involve an issue of scope of negotiations or injunctive relief incidental thereto. It concerns rather the arbitrability of the grievances under the existing agreement and applicable law -- questions which are preeminently appropriate for determination by the courts and not PERC. See, e.g., Clifton Bd. of Ed. v. Clifton Teachers Ass'n , 154 N.J. Super. 500 (App. Div. 1977); Neptune City Bd. of Ed. v. Neptune City Ed. Ass'n , 153 N.J. Super. 406 (App. Div. 1977). This conclusion is buttressed by the proper refusal of PERC to decide questions as to the contractual interpretation of an arbitration clause. Hillside Bd. of Ed. v. Hillside Ed. Ass'n , PERC No. 76-11, 1 NJPER 55 (1975).
Although we reject the legal ground for the decision below, we affirm the order of dismissal for other reasons presented herein.
The major issue on this appeal is whether the withholding of increments is a permitted subject for arbitration under the collective bargaining agreement or is effectively exempt therefrom under controlling law. More specifically, do the provisions of N.J.S.A. 18A:29-14, dealing with the right of a school board to withhold increments "for inefficiency or other good cause" and authorizing an aggrieved staff member to appeal to the Commissioner of Education, negate the power ...