On appeal from the Commissioner of Education, Docket No. 179-6/08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Grall and Messano.
Sharon Francin is a certified physical education teacher but is not certified to teach health. She was formerly employed in the position of teacher of physical education by the Maywood Board of Education. Francin appeals from a final decision of the Commissioner of Education dismissing her challenge to the Board's adoption of a resolution abolishing the position of teacher of physical education and creating instead the position of health and physical education teacher. The resolution left Francin without the necessary qualifications for a position available in the district and resulted in her termination.
On appeal Francin contends the Commissioner erred in concluding: that the Board's resolution was authorized by N.J.S.A. 18A:28-9; that she was not deprived of tenure and seniority rights in violation of either N.J.S.A. 18A:28-5 or N.J.A.C. 6A:32-5.1; and that she was not entitled to reinstatement due to the Board's failure to adopt a resolution removing her in accordance with N.J.S.A. 18A:27-4.1(a). Substantially for the reasons stated in the Commissioner's comprehensive written decision of August 20, 2009, we reject these claims and affirm.
The parties stipulated to the pertinent facts. Francin was hired for the position of teacher of physical education commencing in September 2000. Between September 2000 and June 2006 her assignments for each school year were mixed: she taught classes in physical education and health, or classes in physical education and family life, or classes in physical education, health and family life. In August 2006, the State Department of Education advised the Board that Francin lacked the certification required to teach health.
Francin, who had earned tenure, was encouraged to obtain the additional endorsement, and teaching schedules in the district were rearranged so that she taught no classes other than those she was qualified to teach - physical education. That was her assignment between September 2006 and June 2008.
On April 28, 2008, the Board adopted a resolution abolishing the district's physical education teacher positions and creating positions for teachers of health and physical education. The resolution states the Board's purpose as follows: "to achieve greater efficiency through having a multidisciplinary teaching position and greater economy through employing a single teacher for both health and physical education."
On May 8, 2008, Francin, who had not obtained the additional endorsement required to teach health, was notified that her employment in the district would cease on June 30, 2008. After Francin's departure, teachers serving in the newly-created position had the necessary qualifications. Two did not have tenure, including one hired for the 2008-2009 school year. Of the two tenured teachers retained, one had less and one more seniority than Francin. Between September 2008 and February 2009, the tenured teacher with less seniority than Francin was not assigned to teach health.
Upon receipt of Francin's challenge to the Board's action, the Commissioner referred the contested case to the Office of Administrative Law. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) entertained cross-motions for summary disposition submitted on stipulated facts. The ALJ recommended that the Commissioner enter a decision in favor of the Board and dismiss Francin's position with prejudice. After considering and addressing Francin's exceptions, the Commissioner issued a written decision adopting the ALJ's decision and dismissing Francin's challenge.
Courts disturb an agency determination only when: "(1) it was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable; (2) it violated express or implied legislative policies; (3) it offended the State or Federal Constitution; or (4) the findings on which it was based were not supported by substantial, credible evidence in the record." Univ. Cottage Club of Princeton N.J. Corp. v. N.J. Dep't of Envtl. Prot., 191 N.J. 38, 48 (2007). In recognition of the Commissioner's "superior knowledge" of the field, courts afford special deference to the Commissioner's expertise in matters of school administration and education.
D.G. ex rel. J.G. v. N. Plainfield Bd. of Educ., 400 N.J. Super. 1, 16 (App. Div.) (quoting Greenwood v. State Police Training Ctr., 127 N.J. 500, 513 (1992)), certif. denied, 196 N.J. 346, cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 129 S.Ct. 776, 172 L.Ed. 2d 756 (2008). Moreover, although courts are "'in no way bound by the agency's interpretation of a statute or its determination of a strictly legal issue,'" they "[g]enerally... afford substantial deference to an agency's interpretation of a statute that it is charged with enforcing." Univ. Cottage Club, supra, 191 N.J. at 48-49 (quoting In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 658 (1999)). Consequently, if the head of an agency has interpreted a statute in a manner that is "reasonably debatable," courts should accept it. Borough of N. Haledon v. Bd. of Educ. of Manchester Reg'l High Sch. Dist., 305 N.J. Super. 19, 27 (App. Div. 1997), certif. denied, 152 N.J. 363 (1998).
With those standards in mind, we reject Francin's claim that the Commissioner's interpretation and application of the statutes and ...