July 27, 2010
IN THE MATTER OF THE SUSPENSION OF THE TEACHING CERTIFICATE OF TYARRA HUNTER, GRAY CHARTER SCHOOL, NEWARK, ESSEX COUNTY.
On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Education, Docket No. 293-10/07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted April 27, 2010
Before Judges Skillman and Gilroy.
Appellant Tyarra Hunter appeals from the July 15, 2009 final decision of the Commissioner of Education that suspended her State teaching certificate for one year, determining appellant wrongfully resigned from her teaching position at the Gray Charter School (the school) in Newark. We affirm.
The school employed appellant as a tenured third-grade teacher. On May 3, 2007, appellant signed an employment contract (the contract) agreeing to teach third grade at the school during the 2007-2008 school year. The contract contained the following provision: "Termination Upon Agreement[.] Upon the written agreement of both employee and the School (which agreement may be made by the Executive Director), this agreement shall immediately terminate." Verna Gray, the school's executive director, executed the contract on behalf of the school.
Appellant sent a letter to the school on July 15, 2007, resigning from her teaching position, having accepted another teaching position with the Orange Board of Education on May 28, 2007, knowing that the school's teachers were scheduled to report to the school on August 14, 2007, to prepare for the upcoming school year that was to commence on August 21, 2007. Because the school was closed for the summer vacation, Gray did not receive appellant's resignation letter until August 15, 2007. Appellant failed to report to the school as previously scheduled.
In September 2007, the school submitted a written request to the Department of Education seeking an order to show cause (OTSC) compelling appellant to explain why the Commissioner should not enter an order suspending appellant's teaching certificate "for unprofessional conduct pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:26-10 and N.J.S.A. 18A:28-8." The request was supported by Gray's affidavit of September 20, 2007, in which she stated in relevant part: Appellant's "abandonment of her position has caused Gray Charter School to suffer the loss of a permanent, certified classroom instructor for the 2007-2008 school year." Gray also stated: "[B]ecause of the number of resignations without notice, Gray Charter School was not able to open on August 21, [2007,] as scheduled and staff training had to be postponed at additional expense to the school." Lastly, Gray stated that appellant's resignation caused disruption in the students' academic programs.
The school filed applications for, and the Commissioner issued, OTSCs against seven other teachers who had resigned from their teaching positions at the school immediately prior to commencement of the 2007-2008 school year, directing them to show cause why their teaching certificates should not be suspended pursuant to the same two statutes as appellant. Six of the other teachers contested the OTSCs.
After the seven teachers filed responses to the OTSCs, the OTSCs were transferred to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) as contested cases. Appellant and the six other teachers argued that N.J.S.A. 18A:26-10 and N.J.S.A. 18A:28-8 do not apply to charter school teachers. Additionally, several of the other teachers contended that N.J.S.A. 18A:28-8 does not apply to non-tenured teachers. Because of the similarity of the defenses, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) consolidated the cases for the limited purposes of deciding whether the two statutes applied to charter school teachers and whether N.J.S.A. 18A:28-8 applied to non-tenured teachers.
On June 6, 2008, the ALJ entered an order determining that both statutes apply to charter school teachers, but that N.J.S.A. 18A:28-8 only applies to tenured teachers. Accordingly, the ALJ dismissed those parts of the OTSCs based on alleged violations of N.J.S.A. 18A:28-8 as to the five non-tenured teachers. On July 9, 2008, on interlocutory review granted, N.J.A.C. 1:1-14.10, the Commissioner adopted the ALJ's determinations. On August 14, 2008, the ALJ entered an order deconsolidating the seven cases for separate hearings on the merits.
The case was tried to a conclusion before the ALJ on February 19, 2009; on May 8, 2009, the ALJ issued his initial decision, determining that the untimeliness of appellant's resignation ran contrary to N.J.S.A. 18A:26-10 and N.J.S.A. 18A:28-8. Concluding that appellant wrongfully terminated her employment with the school, the ALJ recommended that her teaching certificate be suspended for one year. In issuing his initial decision, the ALJ reasoned in pertinent part:
The fact is that respondent had a signed contract with the Orange Board of Education on May 28, 2007. As of that point, respondent had the opportunity to handle the situation in a professional manner and comply with both N.J.S.A. 18A:26-10 and N.J.S.A. 18A:28-8. Nonetheless, for her own selfish reasons, i.e., to keep her options open, respondent withheld this information from Ms. Gray. Moreover, respondent waited until July to send her letter of resignation. By that time, it was readily foreseeable that Gray Charter School would not receive the letter of resignation until the first day of school. To compound matters, respondent was aware that two other teachers were resigning from this small school at the same time. Under the circumstances, respondent's actions warrant the full one-year suspension permitted by N.J.S.A. 18A:28-8. Therefore, I CONCLUDE that respondent's teaching certificate should be suspended for a period of one year.
On July 15, 2009, the Commissioner adopted the ALJ's initial decision and suspended appellant's teaching certificate for the recommended one-year period. The Commissioner agreed with the ALJ's conclusion that appellant was guilty of unprofessional conduct under N.J.S.A. 18A:28-8 by failing to give proper notice to the school before resigning from her position as a teacher. In reaching that conclusion, the Commissioner made a complete and independent review of the record and accorded due deference to the ALJ's credibility determinations. N.J.S.A. 52:14B-10(c).
On appeal, appellant argues that the Commissioner "improperly concluded that N.J.S.A. 18A:26-10 and N.J.S.A. 18A:28-8 apply to charter school employees." Alternatively, appellant challenges the one-year suspension of her teaching certificate, contending that "[b]ased on the totality of the circumstances . . . a suspension of her teaching certificate is not warranted," as appellant "attempted to comply with what she thought were her obligations" before resigning. Appellant contends that the Commissioner should have imposed a lesser sanction.
We considered appellant's arguments and affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by the Commissioner in her decisions of June 9, 2008, and July 15, 2009, and for the reasons expressed in our published opinion simultaneously filed with this opinion, In the Matter of the Suspension of the Teaching Certificate of Melissa Van Pelt, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2010).
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