On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Burlington County.
Before Judges Brody, Long and A. M. Stein.
The opinion of the court was delivered by
Defendant Delran Board of Education (Board) appeals from an order confirming an arbitrator's award in favor of one of its certified learning-disabilities teachers, Norma Roth. The arbitration was the final step in a grievance procedure outlined in the employment contract between the Board and plaintiff Delran Education Association. The Board had denied Roth a salary increment for the 1992-93 year because, in the words of a letter to her signed by school superintendent Carl Johnson on behalf of the Board, "on or about February 19, 1992, you behaved in a manner which was not appropriate for a teaching staff member." The reference is to a single encounter between Roth and Johnson. The Board contends that the arbitrator's award unlawfully trespassed upon its management prerogative to set standards of appropriate employee behavior. We reject the Board's argument and affirm the judgment.
At the time in question, the Board offered a learning-disabilities program operated by its Child Study Team. Stanley Halpern was the Acting Coordinator of the Team, which included Roth who had been on the Team for nine years and is certified as a learning-disabilities teacher-consultant. The Team staff also included Sandra Fisher, its clerk, and Ellen Kowal, its secretary.
The Board had engaged an outside contractor to evaluate the program. In order to do so, the contractor had to review the records of a sampling of the pupils enrolled in the program. That presented a problem because under the law, pupil records ordinarily were not available to people who are not part of the school staff. Also, apart from the law, parents may object to their children's school records being examined by such people.
Parents of some of the children in the program attended a Board meeting in January 1992 and raised those objections. They expressed their concern about the confidentiality of their children's school records and asked whether they would be given the opportunity to refuse consent before the records are given to the contractor. The evidence is in conflict as to whether Johnson assured the parents that their permission would be sought before disclosure. The arbitrator found that Fisher and Kowal, the Team clerk and secretary, were at the meeting and reasonably understood from Johnson's assurances that pupil records would not be disclosed to the contractor in the absence of parental consent.
The alleged misconduct occurred the following month at the Team office. Johnson appeared there with Toni Spiotta, the contractor's representative, to obtain copies of a random selection of pupil records. Fisher and Kowal told Johnson that they did not want the responsibility of selecting the records for Spiotta's inspection. In addition to their general concern about confidentiality, they recalled Johnson's assurance to the parents at the Board meeting that records would not be disclosed without parental consent. Halpern, who was in charge of the office, was elsewhere at a meeting. That left Roth as the only certified Team professional who was present. When Johnson ordered her to select the records, she declined to do so, believing that disclosure without parental consent would violate the law. She stated that she would not object to copying the records and blacking out the children's names if Johnson made the random selections. He insisted that she make the selections. Her refusal is the alleged
"inappropriate behavior" that caused the Board to deny her the salary increment.
A week after Roth's alleged misconduct, twenty-five to thirty parents whose children's records were chosen for the study were contacted by Halpern, Coordinator of ...