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In the Matter of the Suspension

May 3, 2011

IN THE MATTER OF THE SUSPENSION OF THE TEACHING CERTIFICATE OF DANIELLE PONTI, GRAY CHARTER SCHOOL, NEWARK, ESSEX COUNTY.


On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Education, Docket No. 294-1007.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued March 29, 2011

Before Judges Parrillo and Skillman.

Appellant Danielle Ponti appeals from the May 12, 2010 final decision of the Commissioner of Education (Commissioner) 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 first-grade teacher. On August 13, 2007, appellant signed an employment contract agreeing to teach at the school during the 2007-2008 academic 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." The agreement also authorized the school to terminate appellant for "cause." Verna Gray, the school's executive director, executed the contract on behalf of the school.

On August 29, 2007, only the second day of class, appellant resigned from her position with the school. On September 27, 2007, the school filed an order to show cause with the Commissioner to suspend appellant's teaching certificate for one year for unprofessional conduct. The school claimed that appellant's resignation without notice violated N.J.S.A. 18A:26-10 and N.J.S.A. 18A:28-8,*fn1 and was contrary to the terms of her employment contract. Appellant responded that the statutes were not applicable to her as a non-tenured charter school employee, and that in any event, she was the subject of a constructive discharge as the result of mistreatment and discriminatory harassment during a phonics workshop prior to the first day of school.

The matter was transferred to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) for disposition, where it was heard by an administrative law judge (ALJ) over the course of three days.*fn2

According to evidence adduced therein, appellant reported to work on August 14, 2007. On that date, five teachers unexpectedly and abruptly resigned from their positions causing Gray to hold a meeting with the teachers, including appellant, informing them that the start of the academic year was postponed until adequate replacements were hired. Gray informed the teachers in attendance that pursuant to statute, teachers were required to provide sixty days written notice before resignation. The school's affirmative action officer also spoke briefly at the meeting about the school's harassment policy, which appellant had previously received and signed.

As discussed at appellant's interview for the teaching position, the school retained Patrick Collins to conduct a workshop on teaching methods for phonics. Collins held the workshop over three days on August 22, 23 and 24, 2007. The workshop introduced the teachers to the teaching method the school required its teachers to apply.

According to appellant, Collins repeatedly referred to her as "Blondie" during the workshop, in a manner designed to embarrass her. For instance, at one point, Collins called appellant to the front of the room before the other teachers to read cards, and in a mocking gesture, said, "Don't worry, Blondie, we'll help you out." According to appellant [Collins] was degrading, humiliating, I could tell he was making fun of me. The other faculty in the room were . . . laughing. I did a few cards[,] and I made mistakes[,] and he was laughing. He was like, "Oh, come on, Blondie, you could do it."

Appellant later learned from a colleague, Ramesha Francois, that the exchange was actually instigated by another teacher, a Ms. Zablow, who supposedly told Collins to embarrass "the blonde." Despite this alleged treatment, appellant never mentioned the incident to Gray.

Subsequently, before the start of the first day of school on August 27, 2007, Gray and appellant met, and Gray instructed appellant to teach phonics starting at 8:00 a.m., but, according to appellant, did not specifically say to apply the phonics teaching method as presented at the workshop. Gray also told appellant that she would provide assistance to her through another more experienced teacher, Megan Groome, and that Collins would observe her classroom as well.

Immediately after that conversation, appellant's mentor teacher, Groome, told her: "Don't worry, you're fine. Teach the Read, Sing, Spell and Write phonics cards [that] we teach in first grade until November, and continue on with what we were supposed to do." That ...


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