In an important decision interpreting New Jersey employment law, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Melnyk versus the Delsea Regional High School District that analyzing whether a position is eligible for tenure protection depends on the statutory requirements, not on how the employer chooses to label it.
Paula Melnyk was a long-time, tenured, full-time, certified, special education and English teacher during the day for the Board of Education of the Delsea Regional High School District, since 1991. From 2002 through 2015, except for a break in the 2009-2010 school year, she also taught at in the Board’s BookBinders Program. This was an evening program for students who had been removed from the traditional daytime classroom for behavioral issues, or who otherwise could not participate in the regular school program. State law required the Board of Education to provide this service, whether through its own staff and facilities, or by agreement through another district. The Board chose to provide the services itself.
The Board characterized Melnyk’s work in this program as “extra-curricular,” and therefore not eligible for tenure. Had it been a position eligible for tenure, Melnyk would have earned it, since even with the break in 2009-2010, she had more than the three years and a day then required to earn tenure (that time frame was increased in 2012 by the TEACHNJ Act, but it was not applicable when Melnyk would have earned tenure).
During the summer of 2014, the Board informed Melnyk that she would not be assigned to the BookBinders Program for the 2015-2016 school year. Rather, an untenured teacher would be assigned to that spot. Melnyk filed an appeal with the Commissioner of Education, alleging that she had earned tenure in her BookBinders position. The Commissioner found that because the BookBinders position was separate from Melnyk’s tenured position and extra-cirricular in nature, she had not earned tenure in it. Melnyk then appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, which affirmed the Commissioner of Education’s decision. Melnyk then appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court rejected the idea that Melnyk could not earn tenure protection in her BookBinders position. The Supreme Court noted that while decisions of administrative agencies, such as the Department of Education, are generally entitled to deference, courts are not bound by the agency’s decision, particularly its legal interpretation.
The Supreme Court first noted that Melnyk served in a position requiring a certification, she held the appropriate certification, and she served for the required period of time, which are the statutory requirements for earning tenure protection – the three elements necessary to acquire tenure. This meant that if the position was one in which a teacher could earn tenure, Melnyk had earned it.
The Court then noted that under its prior seminal decision in Spiewak v. Rutherford Board of Education, the Supreme Court had expressly rejected the idea that what a board labeled a position controlled whether or not the position was eligible for tenure. Similarly, the Court noted that in another seminal decision in 1962, Zimmerman v. Newark Board of Education, it had explained that tenure was a right conferred by statute, and therefore was not a subject for collective bargaining – a contract could not take away a statutory right.
The Court then examined the position on its own merits under the three part tenure test: the nature of the position, her certification, and the time she served. Based on this, the Supreme Court found on question that Melnyk was entitled to tenure. The position required a certification, she had the required certification, and she served the required time. Moreover, the Board was required by law to provide the program, and teachers in it were required by law to be certified to teach in it. The fact that it was not provided to students in the traditional setting had no effect on its examination, nor did the Board’s choice to label the position as “extracurricular.” Justice LaVecchia explained, “There can be no tyranny of labels permitted in this analysis.”
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