Southern Regional School District physical education teacher Darcy Kolodziej is entitled to more than $137,000 in back pay because 30 days of her unpaid maternity leave were not counted toward her seniority when she lost her job in 2007 due to a reduction in force, or RIF.
The June decision by the state education commissioner comes as some 25 RIF’d teachers in Atlantic City prepare to meet with attorneys from the New Jersey Education Association to determine if they, too, might have greater seniority than district records show.
The Southern Regional ruling, which slogged through the state legal process for eight years, demonstrates the complexity of seniority issues and the potentially high cost of a wrongful termination.
When school let outs in June, it’s not just classroom lessons that stop, but also the meals …
“There are some (Atlantic City) employees who still believe there is a question, or that they have proof, that they should not have been dismissed,” said Vincent Perna, the NJEA field representative in Atlantic County.
He estimated between 25 and 30 tenured employees in Atlantic City have raised questions and will meet with NJEA attorneys Monday and Wednesday.
Perna said if their attorneys agree with teachers, they will contact the district and ask for a review of the individual’s RIF. If the district does not agree, the NJEA may file formal complaints with the education commissioner, as allowed by law.
Gary McCartney, the state monitor assigned to the Atlantic City School District by the Department of Education, has said running an accurate seniority list for the district’s 900 employees has been a challenge, and if mistakes are found, he is willing to correct them locally. So far the district has run the list 10 times as changes have been made.
According to school board meeting minutes, two employees who had been RIF’d have been reinstated, but two other employees have also been RIF’d to replace them.
Perna said meetings have been emotional. On one side are employees hoping to get their jobs back, and on the other are employees wondering if they might be the next to be RIF’d if others are brought back.
In the Southern Regional case, an administrative law judge initially ruled in Kolodziej’s favor, but that ruling was rejected by the education commissioner in 2013. In July 2014, the appellate court reversed the commissioner’s decision and sent the matter back to the commissioner to determine her rights and monetary settlement.
Seven Atlantic City school district employees are out of jobs again.
In question was whether Kolodziej was entitled to seniority credit while she was out on unpaid maternity leave during the entire 2005-06 school year. The court determined she was entitled to the first 30 days of her leave as seniority credit, which gave her one month of seniority more than another teacher who had not been RIF’d.
The commissioner last month determined Kolodziej was entitled to back pay, minus unemployment benefits, for the 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, which came to $137,212. She also was awarded seniority credits for those years as if she had been employed.
Perna recalls sitting in a meeting where attorneys were calculating teacher seniority rights down to the number of days worked to try to determine who would be RIF’d. He said the process is complex and takes time.
“One thing people have learned is that these things don’t get worked out very quickly,” he said.
Those who are RIF’d will get first priority for new job openings, and the recall list also must follow seniority rules.