By Joshua Rosario
The Jersey Journal

The Jersey City Public Schools can use district funds to pay for two teachers performing union work full-time, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

In an opinion delivered by Justice Anne Patterson, the high court reinstated the trial court’s initial ruling allowing the practice known as “release time.” An appellate court had reversed that decision, setting up a state Supreme Court showdown that had implications across New Jersey.

The Conservative watchdog group, the Goldwater Institute, filed a lawsuit on behalf of two Jersey City taxpayers against the school board, the school district and the Jersey City Education Association (the teacher’s union) in 2017.

The group, based in Arizona, argued in its lawsuit that the district violated the state constitution’s gift clause by allowing JCEA President Ron Greco and Vice President Tina Thorp to stay on the district payroll while solely working on union business.

The JCEA represents more than 3,000 teachers in one of the largest school districts in the state.

The state constitution’s gift clause prevents local governments from giving “any money or property, or loan its money or credit, to or in aid of any individual, association or corporation.” Together, Greco and Thorp earned more than $200,000 annually. Thorp died last June.

The ruling said the state Legislature empowered the boards of education to govern teachers’ compensation and “release time” is a tool used to accomplish the goal.

“We concur with the trial court that the Board did not violate the gift clause of the New Jersey Constitution when it agreed to the release time provisions in the (collective negotiation agreement),” the opinion reads. “… We conclude that the release time provisions serve a public purpose and are so consonant with the accomplishment of that public purpose that they do not offend the gift clause.”

Goldwater Institute Director of National Litigation Jon Riches said he is disappointed to see the court’s decision in this case. He said release time raises “serious constitutional concern” across many states.

“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.”

Norma Fernandez, the district’s deputy superintendent, said Thorp, an elementary school teacher, and Greco, a crisis interventional teacher, were splitting their days between the classroom and union business while the issue was in the courts.

If the court had affirmed the appellate court decision, it would have created a ripple effect at school districts around the state that also have union representatives whose salaries are paid by the taxpayers.

The JCEA, which did not return calls for comment Wednesday, is an affiliate of the New Jersey Education Association.

NJEA President Marie Blistan, Vice President Sean M. Spiller and Secretary-Treasurer Steve Beatty in a statement commended the state Supreme Court for its decision. They said since the beginning the case had no merit.

NJEA officials said the “frivolous” lawsuit was was filed by “well-funded, out-of-state special interests pursuing a radical anti-union agenda that is out of line with the values we hold dear in New Jersey.”

“It is well established that employees and employers have the right to collectively bargain the terms and conditions of employment,” the NJEA said. “The contract provisions at issue in this matter were part of the legal collective bargaining agreement.