On appeal from the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, Docket No. 276-10/09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Messano, Espinosa and Kennedy.
Denzel Rankins was employed by the Board of Education of the City of Pleasantville (the Board) as a non-tenured high school security guard from June 2000 to June 2009. Rankins and the Board appeal from a final decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Department of Education (the Commissioner) that resulted in the non-renewal of his employment contract. The issue presented by this appeal is whether the Commissioner acted arbitrarily and capriciously in determining that a duly appointed State-appointed monitor had acted within the scope of his authority in overriding a decision by the Board to reinstate Rankins. We affirm.
In March 2007, the Commissioner of Education appointed a monitor to oversee the Board's business operations and personnel matters pursuant to the School District Fiscal Accountability Act, N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-55 to -60. A State-appointed monitor is empowered to:
(1) oversee the fiscal management and expenditures of school district funds, including, but not limited to, budget reallocations and reductions, approvals of purchase orders, budget transfers, and payment of bills and claims;
(2) oversee the operation and fiscal management of school district facilities, including the development and implementation of recommendations for redistricting and restructuring of schools;
(3) ensure development and implementation of an acceptable plan to address the circumstances set forth in subsection a. of this section which resulted in the appointment of the State monitor. The plan shall include measurable benchmarks and specific activities to address the deficiencies of the school district;
(4) oversee all district staffing, including the ability to hire, promote, and terminate employees;
(5) have authority to override a chief school administrator's action and a vote by the board of education on any of the matters set forth in this subsection, except that all actions of the State monitor shall be subject to the education, labor, and employment laws and regulations, including the "New Jersey Employer-Employee Relations Act," . . . and collective bargaining agreements entered into by the school district;
(6) attend all meetings of the board of education, including closed sessions; and
(7) meet with the board of education on at least a quarterly basis to discuss with the members of the board the past actions of the board which led to the appointment of the State monitor and to provide board members with education and training that address the deficiencies identified in board actions.
[N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-55(b)(1) to -55(b)(7) (emphasis added).] On December 9, 2008, T.J., a female student at Pleasantville High School, complained to the principal, Stephen L. Townsend, that Rankins made inappropriate comments about her physical appearance. She prepared a written statement, in which she stated she had experienced many problems with him, that he had been giving her "nasty comments and looks," and it was "getting seriously bad." She cited a recent example in which Rankins said, "what happened to you. In 8th grade prom picture you had a better body then [sic] you do now." On another occasion she confronted him about staring at her. He replied that he was not looking at her but at another female and that T.J. was "mad because she looks better and have [sic] a better body." T.J. stated she was uncomfortable around him and was "scared to walk through the halls by [herself] thinking he's going to pop out of nowhere."
Townsend met with Rankins to discuss these allegations, which Rankins denied. Townsend later wrote a memo to Rankins, dated December 22, 2008, in which he stated he had "completed a thorough investigation of the events of December 9, 2008," and that the witnesses he interviewed stated Rankins "did make inappropriate statements directed at" T.J. He then set forth his "expectations of security officers at Pleasantville High School":
It is imperative that you demonstrate a relationship of mutual respect with students, staff, and the community. Additionally, it is essential to display a courteous, but firm demeanor at all times. You need to demonstrate the ability to be polite and helpful when dealing with staff, students and the public. Plus, I would highly encourage you to handle (disrespect, verbal abuse, criticism, goading, and stress) with patience, calm, maturity, and professionalism.
Any repetition of this kind of behavior will not be in your professional best interest. In the future, please work with me in finding acceptable solutions in dealing with students who pose problems with you.
A few weeks later, a second student, A.V., reported that Rankins made inappropriate comments toward her on January 14, 2009. A.V. prepared a written statement, dated January 15, 2009, in which she said: He asked to see my phone and said who's that and I said thats [sic] my boo and said what grade is he in and I said he [sic] a baby[,] he's only in the 11th and then he said oh he a baby so you aint [sic] ready for no man you can't handle a challenge. I said watch your mouth thats [sic] still my boo and he was like yea yea I know you scared of a challenge.
Another security officer, Quana Barnes, witnessed this incident and prepared a written report: While at the front desk on Jan 14 at around 1:10 pm, I wittiness [sic] Officer Rankins approach [A.V.] from behind, saying to her you scared of a real man you want a boy, you scared of a real challenge yea you don't want a man. As I looked up I asked her to be sure of what I heard[,] what did he say[?] [A]fter confirming she stated that he has been saying things to her and what should she do[,] I told her that she needed to speak with her administrator as [sic] so she did. The next day I to [sic] went and spoke to Miss Medley about the situation also.
A.V. wrote a second statement on January 15, 2009 in which she said that she did not find the comments offensive. She stated she made the report because Ms. Barnes was standing close by and said if she did not report the incident, she would. Felicia Hyman-Medley, an assistant principal sent an email to Townsend on January 15, 2009, in which she described A.V.'s report to her: Mr. Rankins said to A.V., "Why are you messing with a young boy? You can't handle a man? What are you scared of a man?" The young lady said that she normally has a good rapport with Mr. Rankins and is afraid of how he may react to her reporting this incident. The student stated, "I don't want to get anyone in trouble." Rankins denied making any comments to A.V. He later testified that the allegations were "absolutely not true." He stated Barnes's report was false and that she had made up the allegations because she was jealous of the fact that he got a lot of overtime and a lot of work.
Rankins was suspended with pay while investigations were conducted by the Board and the Institutional Abuse Investigation Unit of the Department of Children and Families. On June 2, 2009, the Superintendent notified Rankins that he was recommending that the Board not renew his contract for the following school year. The Superintendent ...