TRENTON — The state Supreme Court today ruled that the Jersey City school district can continue to pay two teachers with public funds to work full-time for their union, in a decision that could have resulted in significant changes in labor relations around the state.

The arrangement is a longstanding one, and "release time" is fairly common in public-sector union contracts. An appeals court ruled against it but the Supreme Court unanimously reversed that decision to reinstate it.

“We’re pleased that the Supreme Court upheld the principle of collective bargaining in New Jersey,” said Steve Baker, communications director for the New Jersey Education Association, the parent organization of the local Jersey City Education Association.

“New Jersey public employees and employers have had the right to collectively bargain the terms and conditions of employment for 52 years. It’s a longstanding practice, and the Supreme Court’s ruling upheld that and affirmed that that right still exists in New Jersey,” Baker said.

“We think they made the right decision. When two parties come together and agree to a contract and agree that it’s in the best interest of both parties, that should be allowed. That should be respected. And that’s what the Supreme Court did today.”

In its ruling, the court said the Jersey City school district’s payment of the salaries and benefits of employees on release time does not violate the "gift clause" in the state constitution that says public funds can’t be given to private interests. And it specifically reversed the appellate court finding that release time isn’t authorized by state law.

“We do not share the Appellate Division’s view that the Board’s agreement to the disputed provisions exceeded its statutory grant of authority,” says the decision, which was written by Associate Justice Anne Patterson.

“In the Education Code, the Legislature empowered boards of education to make rules governing the compensation of teachers, and to fix ‘the payment of salary in cases of absence not constituting sick leave.’ 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 CAN (collective negotiations agreement),” the court said.

“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,” it said.

The lawsuit challenging the release-time agreement was filed on behalf of two taxpayers by Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation at the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, supported by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian public interest law firm in California.

Jon Riches, the Goldwater Institute’s director of national litigation, said he is disappointed by the decision.

“Public resources should be put to public use, not to advance the private interests of labor organizations,” Riches said. “And we stand ready to work with policymakers in New Jersey and elsewhere to eliminate this taxpayer abuse and require that government employees perform the jobs they were hired to perform, rather than work to advance special interests at taxpayer expense.”

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The NJEA called the case a “frivolous lawsuit (that) was never about Jersey City.”

“This was really about well-funded, out-of-state special interest groups trying to bring a radical anti-union agenda into New Jersey,” Baker said. “We have different values here in New Jersey, and the Supreme Court upheld those values.”

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