Upper Township —
The Upper Township Board of Education voted on Jan. 19 to terminate fourth grade teacher Catherine Van Vorst for “conduct unbecoming a certified teaching staff member.”
Van Vorst allegedly used her access to a state assessment test to teach her students questions and the answers coming up on the test. She also allegedly helped the students during the test-taking.
The vote, taken in executive (closed) session of a special meeting held Jan. 19, charges that Van Vorst “engaged in the following conduct unbecoming as a certified teaching staff member, all of which was continuing, flagrant, and unjustifiable.”
The documents also seeks to have Van Vorst remain suspended from the school district, with pay, pending the decision of an administrative law judge on the charges filed against her.
Van Vorst is charged with compromising the security and validity of the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK) of her fourth grade class last year, resulting in an investigation of the Upper Township School District by the state Department of Education and 13 of her students exercising the option to retake the NJASK and nine of her students exercising the option to “void” the scores, according to documents provided by the board of education.
Leading up to and during testing on May 10 to 12, 2010, it is charged, Von Vorst violated the testing security agreement she signed by pre-teaching items on the test, allowing students to model items to be tested on NJASK, reviewing with students how to answer open ended questions on NJASK, and reviewing other specifically tested information, such as placement decimal points, and instructing students how to fold a piece of paper to answer a fraction, the complaint reads.
Charges also include violating the agreement by tapping students on the head if they made a mistake, telling students to check their work, reading questions directly to students, giving examples of the test questions before the beginning of the test, giving examples of answers, and telling students to raise their hands if they did not understand the question.
Van Vorst’s conduct, the complaint reads, caused the school district to be investigated by the state Department of Education, the voiding of NJASK tests, and requiring the Upper Township Board of Education to offer Van Vorst’s students the opportunity to retake the test.
In November, the New Jersey Department of Education Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance (OFAC) Investigations Unit issued a report of its investigation of the alleged breach, board documents state. “The OFAC report determined by preponderance of evidence developed in its investigation that Catherine Van Vorst breached test security protocol.”
The board of education is looking to terminate Van Vorst’s employment in the school district for the alleged conduct.
On Jan. 19, the school board vote was 5 to 3 in favor of filing the complaint charges against Van Vorst with the Department of Education.
The issue was raised in public comment at the board’s regular meeting on Jan. 24. At that time, Van Vorst’s name or the charges against her were not discussed or explained. Resident Russell Murano, during public comment, asked what a teacher “of near 25 years in the district” would lose if let go by the school board.
Both Murano and school board solicitor Will Donio, who responded on the board’s behalf, were careful to keep all answers and statements non-specific.
“It’s no secret there are questions about the board action,” Donio said. “The board has taken this action and it will wind its way through the system.”
Donio went on to explain the path any tenure charges, in any school district, would take. He explained to the audience, which included more than four dozen staff members, the process, from review by the office of administrative law to an administrative law judge taking testimony on the charges.
The administrative law judge would then make a decision on the charges brought. At that point, Donio explained, the case would be sent back to the commissioner of education.
Donio said further action, if the commissioner of education agreed with the administrative law judge’s decision, could include an appeal in the New Jersey appeals court system.
Cases involving tenure of teachers are prioritized by the administrative law judges, Donio said, second only to special education issues, explaining that “tenured school employee status has priority.” Donio said a tenure complaint against a teacher, in his experience, would take about a year to go through the system.
When asked, following the Jan. 24 meeting, for any information, Upper Township Education Association representatives said they could not comment on the matter.