NJ Supreme Court Rules Teacher “Release Time” Does Not Violate State Constitution

NJ Supreme Court Rules Teacher “Release Time” Does Not Violate State Constitution

In Rozenblit v. Lyles, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a significant decision rejecting statutory and constitutional challenges to provisions in a collective negotiations agreement [CNA] between the Jersey City School District [District] and the Jersey City Education Association [Association] that authorized two teachers [“releasees”], employed and paid by the District, to work full-time on the Association’s business, a practice described as “release time.”

Facts of Rozenblit v. Lyles

On May 10, 2010, the District and the Association executed the CNA, which was effective from September 1, 2013 to August 31, 2017. The suit centers on Article 7 of the CNA, which addresses “Association Rights.” Section 7-2.3 stated that “[t]he president of the [Association], and his/her designee, shall be permitted to devote all of his/her time to the Association business and affairs. The [p]resident shall continue to be granted adequate office and parking facilities.” Meanwhile, Section 7-2.4 stated that “[t]he president’s designee shall carry out appropriate Association business, provided that the aforesaid business shall not disrupt the educational process. The designee shall notify the Superintendent or his/her designee as to where and when he/she is carrying out such Association business during school time.”

The two employees designated as releasees pursuant to the above Sections were the Association’s president, Ronald Greco, and its second vice president and Grievance Chair, Tina Thorp. Both received full-time salaries and benefits from the District. According to court documents, the releasees’ duties include facilitating labor-management relations, resolving disagreements, promoting effective communications between teachers and administration, promoting harmonious employer/employee relationships, and helping set and clarify school policies with the administration. The releasees keep an appropriate Associate Superintendent apprised of the work they are doing and their location. Mr. Greco also stated that he is regularly asked by central administrative staff to visit a school to conciliate a dispute and report back.

Plaintiffs Moshe Rozenblit and Won Kyu Rim sought a declaratory judgment holding that the District’s payment of the salaries and benefits of employees on release time is contrary to the Gift Clause provisions of Article VIII, Section 2, Paragraph 1; Article VIII, Section 3, Paragraph 2; and Article VIII, Section 3, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution.

Plaintiffs and the Association both sought summary judgment. The trial court sided with the Association, holding that the disputed provisions did not violate the Gift Clause. The Appellate Division reversed, concluding that the Jersey City Board of Education [Board] acted beyond the scope of its statutory authority when it paid the salaries and benefits of the two releasees. It specifically held that N.J.S.A. 18A:30-7, the statute on which the Jersey City Board of Education [Board], the District, and the Association relied as authority for their agreement to the release time provisions, did not permit the Board to disburse public funds to the releasees. The Appellate Division did not reach the constitutional issues raised by the plaintiffs.

NJ Supreme Court Decision in Rozenblit v. Lyles

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed. The Court held that the CNA’s release time provisions were authorized by the plain language of N.J.S.A. 18A:30-7, construed in conjunction with two related provisions of the Education Code, N.J.S.A. 18A:27-4 and N.J.S.A. 18A:11- 1(c), and with a core provision of the Employer-Employee Relations Act [EERA]. The court further held that release time served the public purpose of facilitating the collective bargaining process and allowing the district and the union to more easily resolve labor disputes. Accordingly, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that release time did not constitute a gift from the district to the union in violation of the New Jersey Constitution.

The New Jersey Supreme Court first addressed whether the Legislature granted the Board the authority to pay the salaries and benefits of the two releasees. It ultimately concluded that the Board’s payment of salaries and benefits to the releasees is within its statutory grant of authority. As Justice Anne Patterson explained:

We do not share the Appellate Division’s view that the Board’s agreement to the disputed provisions exceeded its statutory grant of authority. In the Education Code, the Legislature empowered boards of education to make rules governing the compensation of teachers, N.J.S.A. 18A:27-4, and to fix “the payment of salary in cases of absence not constituting sick leave,” N.J.S.A. 18A:30-7. The Legislature thus authorized the Board to grant a paid leave to the releasees to allow them to attend to labor relations work pursuant to the CNA. Moreover, because the releasees’ efforts encourage cooperative labor relations and facilitate the early resolution of employer-employee disputes, the CNA’s release time provisions facilitate the Board’s management of the public schools pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:11-1(c). The releasees also further the mediation and resolution of labor disputes in accordance with N.J.S.A. 34:13A-2, a provision of the Employer-Employee Relations Act (EERA).

The New Jersey Supreme Court next turned to the constitutional challenge. It agreed with the trial court that the Board did not violate the Gift Clause of the New Jersey Constitution when it agreed to the release time provisions in the CNA.

As the court explained, under the standard set forth in Roe v. Kervick, 42 N.J. 191, 218-19 (1964), a court addressing a Gift Clause challenge must first determine whether the transaction is for a public purpose, and second, whether the means to accomplish that public purpose are consonant with it. For purposes of the first inquiry, courts consider whether the disputed activity serves as a benefit to the community as a whole and is directly related to the functions of government. The second inquiry requires the resolution of two subsidiary questions: (1) whether the transaction is contractual and involves some obligation on the part of the private entity that is intimately tied to fulfilling the public purpose, and (2) whether the accomplishment of the public purpose is the paramount factor in the contract with any private advantage being merely incidental or subordinate.

The Court emphasized that the releasee’s “primary assignment” is to engage with District and Associate personnel to resolve labor disputes, the releasees are regularly asked by school officials to intervene, and they report back to the District on “results achieved.”

“Applying the standard prescribed in Roe v. Kervick, 42 N.J. 191, 218-19 (1964), and later case law, we conclude that the release time provisions serve a public purpose and are so consonant with the accomplishment of that public purpose that they do not offend the Gift Clause,” Justice Patterson wrote. Based on its findings, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division and reinstated the trial court’s order dismissing plaintiffs’ claims.

The Supreme Court’s decision has resolved an important issue in the area regarding labor and management relations.

For more information about the court’s decision or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.

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