The case filed in August wasn’t much different than the typical tenure case that had been brought countless times before in New Jersey, a teacher caught on the wrong side of the law and deemed no longer fit to be in a classroom.
In this one, it was an elementary school teacher in Vineland -- Mark Bringhurst -- who was caught running naked across a parking lot, an incident that ultimately landed him a conviction on a disorderly persons charge.
But what made this instance exceptional is the expedited process it followed, the very first case adjudicated under New Jersey’s brand-new tenure reform law.
Since the Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey Act (TEACHNJ) was signed in early August, 32 tenure charges have been filed by districts in New Jersey, according to the state Department of Education yesterday.
All will follow new procedures intended to speed and clarify the process for getting rid of substandard teachers. As part of the process, 25 specially selected arbitrators hear the cases -- protecting the defendants' right to due process while working with tighter timelines and narrower windows for appeal.
No more administrative law judges to hear the cases, no more lengthy court schedules, which critics contend cost districts -- and their taxpayers -- thousands of dollars. It was a rallying cry that Gov. Chris Christie invoked more than a few times to promote tenure reform, and one that the teachers unions had trumpeted themselves in a proposal for streamlining the system.
With “In the Matter of the Tenure Hearing of Mark C. Bringhurst," the new law has its Exhibit A. And in some ways, the law did appear to make a difference.
“I will say it was expeditious,” said Bringhurst’s own attorney.
Bringhurst’s case is hardly a poster child for tenure reform. While Christie and legislators pressed for the new law as a way to get rid of ineffective teachers in the classroom, Bringhurst's misconduct out of the school was at issue. Under the old law, such cases were predominant as well.
In Bringhurst’s case, the fifth grade teacher in Vineland’s Winslow School -- and his school’s 2011-2012 Teacher of the Year -- was arrested for running naked one March evening through an apartment complex in his hometown of Berlin Township in the presence of witnesses.
Bringhurst claimed it was on a dare from someone he met online and he didn’t mean to be seen. But he had done it once before in the same location, and Berlin police charged him with the more serious felony charge of lewdness. He ultimately pleaded to a municipal disorderly persons charge in July, but even so, the Vineland Board of Education in August filed a tenure charge of “unbecoming conduct.”
“Mr. Bringhurst is an elementary school teacher and his behavior cannot be tolerated by the Vineland School District,” read the charge.
Bringhurst contested the charge, and filed less than a month after TEACHNJ was signed into law.
In his response, Bringhurst cited his unblemished teaching record, and asked for leniency.
“While Mr. Bringhurst acted in an arguably improper manner, which human beings tend to do from time to time, “ according to his defense as cited in the arbitrator’s decision, “he immediately sought assistance from his pastor and those to whom his pastor referred him."
“For the past ninety days he has participated in counseling sessions exploring the roots of his behavior and has embarked on a course of accountability to prevent the behavior from reoccurring,” his lawyer continued.
In this case, the arbitrator was Robert C. Gifford, a Monmouth County lawyer who has served as an arbitrator with the state’s Public Employees Relations Commission since 2001. He was one of 25 arbitrators statewide selected to expressly hear tenure cases under the new law, with unions, school boards, and other education association getting a say as to who made the list.
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