In Parsells v. Board of Education of the Borough of Somerville (A-21-22/087261) (Decided June 12, 2023), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a Somerville teacher did not knowingly waive her tenured right to a full-time teaching position. The court further found that the Appellate Division erred by imposing a duty on school boards 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.
Facts of Parsells v. Board of Education of the Borough of Somerville
The Board of Education of the Borough of Somerville employed Catherine Parsells as a full-time preschool teacher from September 2010 to June 2016. Parsells earned tenure in 2013. In May 2016, she expressed interest in switching temporarily to a part-time teaching position to spend more time with her newborn son, specifying her understanding that she would later be able to return to a full-time position.
Without addressing Parsells’ assertion that she understood that her switch would be temporary, the Board approved her transfer to a part-time position. A few years later, Parsells sought to return to work full-time and applied for several full-time teaching positions for which she was certified. The Board instead hired non-tenured teachers and maintained that by switching to part-time, Parsells had waived her right to a full-time position.
An administrative law judge (ALJ) found that Parsells had voluntarily changed her full-time teaching status, that her tenure and seniority protections were therefore not triggered, and that the Board therefore did not violate her rights. The Commissioner reversed for three reasons: (1) the ALJ failed to resolve whether Parsells “knowingly and voluntarily waived her tenure rights to her full-time position”; (2) the Commissioner was unpersuaded that there was no notice obligation under consistent with the principles espoused in Bridgewater-Raritan Education Ass’n v. Board of Education of Bridgewater-Raritan School District, 221 N.J. 349 (2015) in the circumstances of the case; and (3) extending leave for the 2017-18 school year did not “constitute a waiver of her tenure rights.”
The Appellate Division affirmed the Commissioner’s final agency decision and explicitly extended Bridgewater-Raritan to impose a duty on school boards to “provide advance notice to their tenured full-time teachers that they may not get their full-time teaching job back if they voluntarily take a part-time teaching job.”
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in Parsells v. Board of Education of the Borough of Somerville
The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Division that Parsells did not knowingly waive her tenured right to a full-time teaching position. However, it rejected the extension of Bridgewater-Raritan to impose a duty on school boards 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.
As Justice Douglas M. Fasciale explained, the Tenure Act provides that tenured teachers “shall not be dismissed or reduced in compensation except for inefficiency, incapacity, or conduct unbecoming such a teaching staff member or other just cause.” The question before the New Jersey Supreme Court was whether the circumstances show that by voluntarily switching to a part-time teaching position temporarily, Parsells knowingly waived her right — otherwise protected by her tenure status — to a full-time teaching position clearly, unequivocally, and decisively.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ultimately found that she did not, concluding that the Board failed to show that Parsells waived or abandoned her known right to full-time employment as a tenured teacher “either by design or indifference,” or that she did so “clearly, unequivocally, and decisively.” The circumstances surrounding Parsells’ expressed interest and the Board’s subsequent approval instead confirmed that she believed she had a right, as a tenured teacher, to return to work full-time and that she did not knowingly waive or abandon that right.
The New Jersey Supreme Court went on to find that the Appellate Division erred in extending Bridgewater-Raritan to impose a duty on school boards to notify tenured teachers in advance that if they work part-time after working full-time, they might not have a right to return to the full-time position. According to the court, Bridgewater-Raritan is a different case.
“Here, there is no use of the term ‘designate’ and indeed no specific provision of the Tenure Act that counsel have asked us to interpret,” Justice Fasciale wrote. “Contrary to the appellate court’s conclusion, the ‘mere existence of the Tenure Act’ does not supply a rationale for the imposition of a duty to notify.”
While the New Jersey Supreme Court found that there was no basis for the duty notify, it encouraged school boards to address, at the time the request for part-time work is made, whether the tenured teacher is voluntarily and knowingly waiving rights to a full-time teaching position. It further emphasized that “[a]ny waiver of a teacher’s tenure rights must be clear, knowing, and unequivocal.”