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April 09, 2015

Public policy favors the protection of employees’ seniority rights

Public policy favors the protection of employees’ seniority rights
Appeal of Alexander and Gonzalez from action of the Board of Education of the East Ramapo Central School District, Augustina West and Dionne Olamiju regarding termination of employment. Decisions of the Commissioner of Education, Decision No. 16,731

Angela Alexander (Alexander) and Madeline Gonzalez (Gonzalez) appealed the decisions of the Board of Education of the East Ramapo Central School District (Board) to terminate their services as administrators in the course of the abolishment of certain positions. The Commissioner of Education sustained their appeals.

Alexander was granted tenure in the tenure area of “Elementary Assistant Principal,” effective August 19, 2005; Gonzalez was granted tenure in the tenure area of “Elementary Assistant Principal,” effective July 1, 2005.

During the 2011-2012 school year, the school district excessed all elementary assistant principals as well as the two least senior secondary principals, effective June 30, 2012. Alexander and Gonzalez were notified that their positions as Elementary Assistant Principals were abolished and that their employment was terminated effective June 30, 2012. Alexander and Gonzalez filed an Article 78 proceeding in Supreme Court, Rockland County, seeking a determination that they were improperly terminated from their positions as Assistant Principals. Supreme Court dismissed the petition on the grounds that the Commissioner of Education had primary jurisdiction* over the dispute.

Alexander and Gonzalez contended that they hold tenure in the broader “Assistant Principal” tenure area and that the Board wrongfully granted them tenure in the more narrow area of “Elementary Assistant Principal” without their written consent. In addition, they argued that the Board’s decision to excess principals according to their seniority using the narrower tenure area violates applicable law and that they more senior than the two individuals who were continued in service.**

Initially the Commissioner addressed the issue of timeliness of this appeal, explaining that “An unsuccessful attempt to litigate a dispute in court which does not result in a final determination on the merits may be accepted as an excuse for failing to file a timely appeal to the Commissioner when the appeal is commenced within a reasonable time after the dismissal or abandonment of the court proceeding.” As Alexander and Gonzalez had commenced this appeal within 30 days of the Supreme Court’s decision, the Commissioner ruled the appeal was timely.

Addressing the merits of the appeal, the Commissioner noted that Education Law §3013(2) provides, in pertinent part, that when a position subject to this provision is abolished, “the services of the teacher having the least seniority in the system within the tenure of the position abolished shall be discontinued.”

Although there are no clearly defined guidelines for determining the parameters of administrative tenure areas, a board of education may establish one district-wide administrative tenure area or multiple defined administrative tenure areas, the Commissioner noted that “Public policy favors the protection of employees’ seniority rights,” explaining that “As tenure areas narrow, seniority rights become less meaningful” while “As tenure areas broaden, seniority rights take on greater significance.”

Citing Steele v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of New York, 40 NY2d 456, the Commissioner said that where tenure areas have been narrowed the employer must demonstrate that it, in fact, established the narrow, specific, tenure area ‘consciously’ and ‘by design’ and that the employee has been sufficiently alerted to that fact.”

Here the Board carried the burden of proving its intention to create narrower, multiple defined tenure areas for its administrators and that Alexander and Gonzalez were sufficiently alerted to the fact. In order to establish that Alexander and Gonzalez belonged in the tenure areas claimed by the Board, the Commissioner said that Board had to show that it had “adequately demonstrated that at the time of their appointments, the two categories had “traditionally been treated separately” by the district, and that [Alexander and Gonzalez] were ‘sufficiently alerted to the fact [that] they were entering ... entirely separate and independent’ areas, apart from that of the broad ‘Assistant Principal’.”

The Board submitted an affidavit from its Assistant Superintendent of Personnel/Secondary Education and other records indicating that:

1. Since 2000, the district has granted tenure to assistant principals only in the administrative tenure areas of “Secondary Assistant Principal” and “Elementary Assistant Principal.” 

2. Prior to 2000, assistant principals were granted tenure in the following tenure areas: “High School Assistant Principal,” “Junior High School Assistant Principal” and “Elementary Assistant Principal.”

3. A May 2000 agreement between the district and the East Ramapo Building Administrators Association (ERBAA), Alexander's and Gonzalez’s recognized collective bargaining unit, whereby 11 administrative members then serving in the high school assistant principal tenure area and the junior high school assistant principal tenure area agreed to be placed in the new secondary assistant principal tenure area.  

However, said the Commissioner, the 2000 agreement “does not apply to [Alexander and Gonzalez] or the narrower tenure area of ‘Elementary Assistant Principal.’” Accordingly, the Commissioner ruled that the documentation submitted by the Board failed to demonstrate that Alexander and Gonzalez were sufficiently alerted of the district’s alleged determination not grant tenure in the “Assistant Principal” tenure area after 2000. 

Although the Board submitted a copy of a Memorandum of Understanding in which Gonzalez acknowledged she was “serving in the position of Elementary Assistant Principal” and there was an agreement to adjust her salary, the Commissioner said that “nowhere in this document does Gonzalez consent to serving in the ‘Elementary Assistant Principal tenure area’, which is the issue in this case” and that this documentation was “unpersuasive to demonstrate Gonzalez’s consent to change tenure areas."

Viewing the totality of the evidence presented, the Commissioner held that the Board’s actions fail to support a determination that, upon hiring, Alexander or Gonzalez were either apprised that their tenure area would be the “Elementary Assistant Principal” tenure area, or that they acquiesced to placement within a new tenure area. Tenure areas, said the Commissioner, are fixed at the time a person is appointed and cannot be applied retroactively without the person’s consent.  

Noting that the record clearly indicates that Alexander and Gonzalez were appointed to probationary positions in the “Assistant Principal” tenure area the Commissioner said that although Board’s minutes and Notices of Tenure served on Alexander and Gonzalez state that each was appointed to tenure in the “Elementary Assistant Principal” tenure area, the Board has not met its burden of demonstrating that Alexander and Gonzalez were sufficiently alerted to their appointment in the “Elementary Assistant Principal” tenure area at the time of appointment or that they consented to a change in tenure area after such appointment.  

Thus, in abolishing the elementary assistant principal positions, the Board was required to excess the administrator(s) “having the least seniority in the system within the tenure of the position abolished”

The Commissioner then remanded the matter to the Board for a determination of Alexander's and Gonzalez’s seniority rights in the assistant principal tenure area and, based on such seniority, their right to reinstatement in the district as assistant principals on July 1, 2012, in accordance with this decision, including whether Alexander and Gonzalez are entitled to be restored to tenured positions as an “Assistant Principal”, “effective July 1, 2012, with back pay and retroactive benefits.”

* The doctrine of primary jurisdiction provides that where the courts and an administrative agency have concurrent jurisdiction over a dispute involving issues beyond the conventional experience of judges the court will stay its consideration of the matter until the relevant administrative agency has applied its expertise to the salient questions [Staatsburg Water Co. v Staatsburg Fire Dist., 72 NY2d 147].

** The School District contended that the two retained individuals were sent Notices of Tenure and of Appointment indicating that they received tenure as “Assistant Principals” but were actually tenured as Secondary Assistant Principals.

The Commissioner’s decision is posted on the Internet at:

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New York Public Personnel Law Blog Editor Harvey Randall served as Principal Attorney, New York State Department of Civil Service; Director of Personnel, SUNY Central Administration; Director of Research, Governor’s Office of Employee Relations; and Staff Judge Advocate General, New York Guard. Consistent with the Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations, the material posted to this blog is presented with the understanding that neither the publisher nor members of the NYPPL staff are providing legal advice to the reader and in the event legal or other expert assistance is needed, the reader is urged to seek such advice from a knowledgeable professional.
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