NJ teacher signs up to serve in Army, so district fires him — lawsuit
HIGH BRIDGE — A teacher who said he received all positive feedback from district administrators says he was fired after enlisting in active duty in the Army.
Kevin Jones began teaching at the Hunterdon County district's middle school in 2013 and was let go before he was awarded tenure.
In January, Jones got confirmation that he was approved for active duty and would serve from April through August, allowing him to be back in time for this school year, according to the lawsuit in U.S. District Court of New Jersey.
State law grants tenure to public school educators after their fourth year on the job. Tenure protects teachers and principals by making it difficult for districts to fire them or reduce their pay without just cause.
The lawsuit claims that by firing Jones while he was away on active duty, the district violated the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act "by using Plaintiff's service in the United States military as a motivating factor" in determining his job status.
In the lawsuit, Jones claims he first told school and district officials that he was considering enlisting in the military during the 2015-2016 school year, but had not made a final decision. The lawsuit claims that over the first three years, he received "overall effective summative evaluations" and "exemplary reviews for all his observations."
In August 2015, Principal Richard Kolton wrote a letter of recommendation for Jones, which was included in the lawsuit, saying he had "developed a wealth of experience working with children as he has enthusiastically advocated for healthy living and physical fitness." He added, "He is dedicated to the school and his enthusiasm is apparent."
The lawsuit claims that at the start of the 2016-2017 school year, Jones talked to Kolton who, he said, told him he would be renewed for the upcoming school year, and therefore would obtain tenure.
The lawsuit says that even after notifying Kolton of his enlistment, he was given assurances that he would be allowed to return to work after his service was over. Even after informing the district of his enlistment, the lawsuit says Jones had another observation where he was rated as "effective" and "highly effective" in all categories.
Jones' lawsuit claims that two weeks before he was to start his service in the Army, Kolton "suddenly" was critical of his work.
In April, Kolton and Superintendent Gregory Hobaugh questioned his dedication to working for the school, the lawsuit says.
"At the end of the meeting, Kolton and Hobaugh informed Plaintiff that it "may be a good idea for Plaintiff to seek new employment," the lawsuit claims.
After that meeting, Kolton encouraged Jones to write a letter to Hobaugh "to explain why his contract should be renewed." In the letter, which was included as an exhibit in the lawsuit, Jones cites his work as a Student Leadership Advisor and his work with the Drama department on school plays, adding "that my commitment is to the students of High Bridge School District and nothing else."
He said during a "lengthy" contract negotiation between the district and the teacher's union, he was "devoting every moment that I can to this district." That included reading names at the honor roll breakfast, and taking part in the student vs. staff volleyball and basketball games "even as the teachers of the middle school have boycotted the events."
"I am joining the military under my own volition, yes, but I am doing so with the anticipation that I will develop skills that will be of greater benefit to myself, my family and my students," he says in the letter. "My observations clearly reflect that I am a qualified, dedicated teacher who is committed to serving this district, as I have since being hired."
According to the lawsuit, Jones received a letter on April 27 from Hobaugh that he would not be renewed for the upcoming school year.
The letter says that starting in February, Jones' "effort significantly diminished and you presented a 'checked-out' attitude."
Some examples Hobaugh cites in the letter include issues with lesson plans, following school rules for security, and "parents reporting that work was turned in and lost by the teacher." Hobaugh also claims in the letter that Jones had not met with his temporary replacement, or left lesson plans or directions for his classes.
"The items listed above are not things that would necessarily show up in a classroom evaluation report but instead represent the complete picture and the reason why we have concerns about whether you should be awarded a tenure contract," Hobaugh says. "Based on all of the foregoing, I do not feel comfortable recommending you for a tenure contract and believe it to be in the Board's best interest to seek a replacement."
The lawsuit claims that the examples Hobaugh cited in his letter "are either false or had been previously permitted by the Defendant, and that "contrary to Defendant's assertions, Plaintiff maintained his performance until his military leave."
Because it is a personnel matter and active litigation, attorney Adam Weiss said the district would not comment on the lawsuit.
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com