By Kaitlyn Dunphy, Esq.
reschool full time for the Somerville Board of Education from 2010 until 2016, when she accepted a part-time preschool position. She accepted the part-time position on the condition that it included health benefits. At no time did any administrator tell her that, by reducing her hours to part time, she would lose tenure rights to her full-time position, nor was she told that she would no longer be entitled to return to her full-time position.
In February 2017, Parsells took maternity leave. She understood at the time that she could continue in a part-time position with benefits when she returned from leave. However, the outgoing superintendent notified her that the board could only offer benefits if she returned to work full time. Parsells was not able to work full time, so she declined the position and extended her maternity leave through the 2017-18 school year.
In April 2018, Parsells spoke with her principal about returning to work full time for the 2018-19 school year and was told for the first time that she did not have the option of doing so, that the only position available to her was a part-time position without benefits. Her principal told her that if she wanted to be considered for a full-time position, she would need to apply for one.
With the assistance of an NJEA network attorney, Parsells filed a petition of appeal with the New Jersey commissioner of education. Her petition was successful. The commissioner held that Parsells never knowingly and voluntarily waived her right to a full-time teaching position, citing “a long line of cases holding that tenure rights can only be waived knowingly and voluntarily through a clear, unequivocal, and decisive act.”
The commissioner further noted the board’s superior knowledge of tenure law, concluding that the board “had all of the information and nonetheless kept [Parsells] in the dark. The fact that the Legislature has not enacted a statute to define a board of education’s notice obligations regarding changes from full time to part time employment is not dispositive in light of the broad protective purpose of the Tenure Act.”
Affirming the commissioner in a published opinion, the Appellate Division went a step further, holding for the first time that “school boards have a duty to notify, in advance, full-time teachers who consider voluntarily transferring to part-time teaching positions that they may not have a right to return to their full-time position.” The court extended the reach of a prior decision, which requires nontenured teachers to be given advance notice about the tenure consequences of their designation as replacement teachers. Now, tenured teachers are entitled to advance notice about the tenure consequences of their voluntarily transferring from full-time to part-time positions.
This is an incredible win for our members and an expansion of the protections found in the Tenure Act. At the time of publication, the district has filed a petition seeking an appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Kaitlyn Dunphy is an associate director of NJEA Legal Services and Member Rights in the NJEA Executive Office. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.