City School District Expects Number of Tenure Cases To Increase By Almost Double Next Year
Tuesday, February 26, 2013 • 1:47pm
PATERSON, NJ – City education officials are expecting an increase in the number of teachers they will try to fire in the coming year. That expectation was made public during recent discussions of the district’s spending on its legal department.
State-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans projected that the legal fees the district spends bringing tenure charges against city teachers would grow by 85 percent if Paterson Public Schools does not hire someone to fill the newly-created deputy counsel position.
The district spent $135,000 on legal expenses stemming from tenure charges in 2011-12 and expects that number to reach $250,000 in 2013-14, according to a memo that Evans provided to the Board of Education.
That jump accounts for a large share of a projected increase in legal fees that Evans’ memo says would push the total cost of outside counsel work next year to more than $1 million. If the district expands its in-house legal staff, the total fees for outside counsel in 2013-2014 would be $555,000, including $125,000 for tenure cases, according to the memo.
Evans and school board members discussed the district’s legal expenses at last week’s monthly meeting as the district administration moves ahead on its plans to hire a deputy at a salary between $120,000 and $150,000.
“Prior to this year, the district rarely pursued tenure charges for tenured teachers whose performance in the classroom (pedagogy, content knowledge, classroom management, etc.) was poor,’’ Evans wrote in his memo. “Indeed tenure charges filed in the district were typically for ‘misconduct’ and these cases were usually handled by the district’s School Security Office. Today the focus of potential tenure charges has shifted to focus heavily on performance in the classroom. As a result, the number (of) tenure cases is expected to increase significantly and I need to ensure sufficient capacity in the Legal office to handle them.’’
Peter Tirri, president of the Paterson Education Association, the union that represents city teachers, said a new staff evaluation system being implemented by the district seems designed to force educators out of their jobs. “The purpose of an evaluation system should be to make people better, not get rid of them,’’ said Tirri.
Tirri said he thought it would be unfair if the district started filing tenure charges against teachers during the 2013-14 school year because of what he described as widespread confusion over the evaluation system. Tirri said news of an anticipated increase in the number of tenure cases “would panic into the schools.’’
Evans said the district would be looking for a deputy counsel with expertise in handling tenure cases. The district is accepting applications for the job through March 3, according to the posting on its website.
The superintendent’s plan to hire another attorney in the legal department caught some board members off guard earlier this year and prompted them to demand a fuller explanation for the need for the position.
Some board members said they thought it was premature for the district to consider hiring a deputy because the general counsel, Lisa Pollak, has only been in her position since last summer. Moreover, board members said the district would have a better idea of the workload of the legal department after assistant counsel Carol Smeltzer returns from medical leave.
But Evans said he thought waiting would be unwise because of the heavy workload facing Pollak. He has said the district would save money on fees for outside firms by hiring a deputy.
During last week’s discussion, Board Vice President Kenneth Simmons asked for a detailed rundown of Pollak’s daily schedule to help the board members understand the demands of her position.
“I think that’s going too far,’’ Evans said. “She’d fall further behind if she spent every minute logging every minute of her time.’’
But Board President Christopher Irving said he thought Simmons had made a reasonable request. “What does overwhelmed mean and how does that look on a given hour, on a given day on a given week,’’ Irving said. “With due respect, it’s within the board’s rights to ask for anything we want.’’
Simmons said he wasn’t asking for Pollak’s schedule on a permanent basis, just for a limited time so he and other board members could get a better understanding of her job.
Under the system of state control over Paterson schools, the school board simply serves in an advisory capacity and doesn’t have any authority on whether the superintendent hires a deputy counsel.