On appeal from the State Board of Education, Agency Docket No. 567-9/10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 17, 2012
Before Judges A. A. Rodriguez and Ashrafi.
Petitioner Jose Negron appeals from the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Education concluding that the South Plainfield Board of Education (the Board) was not legally bound to renew his contract as district superintendent for three years and did not act to extend his existing contract for an additional one-year period. After Negron filed an appeal to the Commissioner of Education, the matter was submitted to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on cross-motions for summary disposition. The Acting Commissioner adopted the ALJ's decision in favor of the Board with modification. We now affirm the Acting Commissioner's decision.
The facts are not disputed. The Board appointed Negron superintendent
of South Plainfield public schools for a term commencing on October 1,
2007, and ending on June 30, 2011. At the time of Negron's
appointment, N.J.S.A. 18A:17-20.1 entitled superintendents to
one-year's notice before the end of their contract terms if the board
of education did not intend to renew their contracts.*fn1
Citing N.J.S.A. 18A:17-20.1, Negron's contract provided that
his employment would be renewed for a new three-year term commencing on July 1, 2011, unless the Board provided notice
to him at least one year earlier, that is, no later than June 30,
2010, that his employment would cease at the end of his contract term.
On June 29, 2010, the nine-member Board, all of whom were present, took action regarding potential renewal of Negron's employment at the expiration of his contract. The Board first voted on a resolution to offer a new four-year contract to Negron to run from July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2015. The vote was two ayes, four nays, and three abstentions. Both parties agree that the first resolution failed. The Board then voted on a second resolution to extend Negron's existing contract for an additional one-year period to June 30, 2012. The vote was four ayes, two nays, and three abstentions. The parties disagree as a question of law on whether the second resolution was thus adopted or failed.
The Board viewed the second resolution to have failed. It took the position that the affirmative vote of a majority of all members - five votes - was needed to adopt the resolution. The Board secretary issued a letter to Negron the same night, June 29, 2010, with the following notice:
As directed by the South Plainfield Board of Education, I regret to inform you that in accordance with New Jersey law, N.J.S.A. 18A:17-20.1, this correspondence shall serve as notice that you will not be offered a new employment contract upon expiration of your current contract at the conclusion of the 2010-2011 school year.
The following day, Negron submitted a letter to the Board upon advice of his attorney purporting to accept renewal of his contract for a new three-year term or, in the alternative, to accept a one-year extension of his existing contract.
In September 2010, the Board passed by the affirmative vote of five members two resolutions intended to remove any misunderstanding about its June 29 actions. On September 15, 2010, the Board adopted a resolution confirming that it had not extended Negron's contract for one year. After Negron filed his administrative appeal, the Board adopted a second resolution on September 30, 2010, stating that, if the four affirmative votes of June 29, 2010, were to be considered sufficient to pass the resolution extending Negron's contract, the Board was now rescinding that action. The September 30, 2010 resolution also stated: "the Board wishes to once again reaffirm its intent that the Superintendent's employment with the Board of Education will end June 30, 2011."
On Negron's appeal to this court, we consider two primary questions: (1) was the Board compelled to grant a renewal of Negron's contract for an additional term of three years because it failed to provide valid notice pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:17- 20.1 that his contract would not be renewed; and (2) were four affirmative votes sufficient to adopt the June 29, 2010 resolution extending Negron's then-existing contract for one year. We answer both questions no. The Board gave legally valid notice to Negron that his contract would not be renewed, and the affirmative votes of five Board members were required to extend his contract.
Our standard of review on the issues raised is plenary because they are both questions of law. Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995). Although the quasi-judicial decisions of an administrative agency are typically entitled to deference on appeal and may be reversed only where they are arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable, Circus Liquors, Inc. v. Governing Body of Middletown Twp., 199 N.J. 1, 9 (2009), an appellate court is not bound by an agency's interpretation of a statute or its determination of strictly legal issues, Mayflower Sec. Co. v. Bureau of Sec., 64 N.J. 85, 93 (1973). See also Bd. of Educ. of Twp. of Neptune v. Neptune Twp. Educ. Ass'n, 144 N.J. 16, 31 (1996) (plenary standard of review applicable to Commissioner's interpretation of statutory and decisional law). We must determine without deference to the Acting Commissioner what the relevant statutes require and how they apply to the undisputed facts in this case.
N.J.S.A. 18A:17-15 provides that a board of education may appoint "for a term of not less than three nor more than five years and expiring July 1, a superintendent of schools by the recorded roll call majority vote of the full membership of the board." Negron does not dispute that a minimum of five affirmative ...