The state education commissioner has overturned the termination of Haddon Township High School’s athletic director, who in May 2012 was caught on camera placing dog feces on his ex-wife’s car in the school parking lot.
Just months before, Alan Carr also lied to school administrators about secretly putting an upsetting newspaper article in his ex-wife’s mailbox, records show.
Carr and his ex-wife, also a teacher at the high school, had divorced shortly before the actions occurred.
An administrative law judge initially ruled in April to revoke Carr’s tenure, saying “his ability to serve as a proper example for students has been severely compromised.” The district school board had contended Carr’s behavior violated its anti-bullying policy and warranted dismissal from his tenured position.
But Commissioner Chris Cerf this week said that punishment would go too far.
Cerf said Carr’s actions, “although reprehensible, were not as egregious as the conduct that has been reported in some prior cases relating to teacher termination.” He also noted the “highly improper” incident “stemmed from a domestic incident not associated with (Carr’s) school duties.” [emphasis mine]Obviously, I don't know all the particulars, so I won't comment on whether Carr is guilty or not. But here we have yet another incident where Chris Cerf seems more than happy to throw himself into a matter of local school governance and render a decision solely on the basis of his personal judgement.
You'll remember when Cerf overturned the decision of the Perth Amboy BOE to fire their controversial superintendent, Janine Caffrey. But that was just one of a series of events that point to a pattern of autocracy throughout New Jersey's school system.
Now, I understand that New Jersey's laws give the Commissioner the right to render judgements on all matters arising under school law. But the Commissioner also has an obligation to show restraint when overturning the decision of both a local school board and an administrative judge. In other words: he better have a damn good reason for reversing a previous decision. Does he?
Cerf said Carr’s actions, “although reprehensible, were not as egregious as the conduct that has been reported in some prior cases relating to teacher termination.” He also noted the “highly improper” incident “stemmed from a domestic incident not associated with (Carr’s) school duties.”
Cerf instead said Carr must forfeit 120 days’ pay that had already been withheld as a result of his tenure charge. He said Carr also must give up a future salary increase and is to be suspended for an additional six months without pay.Cerf is saying that there needs to be leniency here on Carr's behalf, because this arose out of a personal relationship. But even if the incident came out of a domestic dispute, these two people were still coworkers. Since when does the Commissioner have the right to overstep both a school board and an administrative judge in a matter of workplace harassment? Would Cerf have been OK with the termination if Carr's victim had not been his ex-wife?
Cerf implies that more egregious behavior has been let slide before. But I very much doubt there are many cases on file of ex-spouses who are employed at the same school engaging in behavior this outrageous. In other words, Cerf is making a value judgement; he's weighing the conduct here against other, separate cases. It seems to me that he ought not to do that unless there is a clear indication that the charges against Carr are frivolous, politically motivated, or fraudulent.
For that matter, what training does Cerf have to adjudicate these matters? I know he went to law school and clerked with Sandra Day O'Connor (admittedly, that's impressive), but I don't think he's ever been in a position to render legal judgments. His confirmation hearing certainly never hit on his qualifications to hear such matters, let alone determine what is and isn't a fair punishment. Does Chris Cerf really have the skills, training and standing to be able to make what is a legal determination in contradiction to a qualified administrative law judge?
Now, some of you may think I'm being inconsistent, because I am a strong supporter of teacher tenure. But it seems to me that the process worked exactly as it should have. Carr received due process; he was removed from his position. That's all tenure is: a guarantee of due process.
But when someone like Cerf comes in and, for all intents and purposes, vacates the decisions that follow from the process, it calls into question the validity of the entire system. How do I or any other educator know this can't happen the other way as well? What if the Commissioner decides to overturn an arbitrator's decision in favor of a teacher on a tenure charge simply because he decides he wants to?
No one can trust New Jersey's tenure laws if the decisions of administrative judges are overturned on the Commissioner's whims.
Again, I'm not privy to the particulars of this case, and even if I were, I'm not a lawyer. Maybe Carr was treated unfairly. But if Cerf is going to, once again, strip away local control, he should tread very lightly. Or he might wind up stepping in the same stuff Carr smeared over his ex-wife's car.
NJ education law, that is!