On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Education, Docket No. 332-10/07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Skillman and Gilroy.
Appellant Jenelle Stokes 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 non-tenured second-grade teacher. On May 10, 2007, appellant signed an employment contract (the contract) agreeing to teach second 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 13, 2007, resigning from her teaching position, having accepted another teaching position with the Orange Board of Education earlier that month, although the school's teachers were scheduled to report on August 14, 2007, to prepare for the upcoming school year that commenced on August 21, 2007. Because the school was closed for the summer vacation, Gray did not receive appellant's resignation letter until August 14 or 15, 2007. When appellant failed to report to the school as previously scheduled, the school's secretary telephoned appellant and left a message inquiring of her status, but appellant did not return the telephone call.
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 unable 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 the 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 did not apply to charter school teachers. Additionally, appellant and several of the other teachers argued that N.J.S.A. 18A:28-8 did 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 the two statutes apply to charter schools, 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 five non-tenured teachers.*fn1 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 17, 2009; on June 2, 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. Concluding that appellant wrongfully terminated her employment with the school, the ALJ recommended that her teaching certificate be suspended for 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. In so doing, the Commissioner reasoned:
[Appellant] knew or should have known that her unexpected resignation would leave the school administrator without sufficient time to find a replacement for her, and would result in significant negative ramifications for the school and the students. The resignation did -- in point of fact --contribute to a delay in the school starting date, which necessitated the rescheduling of training and school holidays and negatively impacted the morale of the remaining staff. There is nothing in the record to indicate that [appellant's] actions were driven by emergent circumstances or hardship. The significant inconvenience of Gray Charter School staff and students could have been avoided by more conscientious behavior on the part of [appellant].
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 ...