The township Board of Education reversed its decision against granting tenure to two district employees Monday night, but a motion on a third – former Dragons head football coach and current special education teacher Patrick Dowling – failed to garner enough board support to reverse a previous vote.
Dowling was among three teachers who were not granted tenure in April, when the board voted on a long list of teachers recommended by administrators to receive it.
Two of those teachers, John Bach and Adam Sacco, will now receive tenure following private hearings, known as Donaldson hearings, held Monday night where they pled their cases to board members.
Dowling requested his hearing be held in public, however, and what ensued was an oft-heated exchange with board members scrutizining Dowling's record and Dowling accusing board members of playing politics.
"My goal here tonight is to bring an end to the personal attacks on me, my career and my education," Dowling told board members as he began his public address.
"I have never stopped being the teacher I was hired to be. I have never failed the children," he said. "This district failed me and the children. I have not failed this district."
Several witnesses, including Superintendent Walter Hrycenko, supported Dowling.
"No matter who talks about Pat Dowling, everyone talks about the character he possesses and how he shares that with his students," said Hrycenko, calling the former coach a role model for his students.
"Coach is one of the biggest influences of my life," said BTHS student Kelly Martyn, reading a letter written by her brother, former football player Sean Martyn, who is now suffering from cancer. "I just hope you do the right thing."
But board members took issue with some negative remarks given to Dowling in employment evaluations, including an allegation that he relied too much on worksheets, had trouble managing his classroom, was sarcastic towards a student during an evaluation and had a student fall asleep in his classroom during an evaluation.
Dowling defended his record, however, telling board members the vast majority of his evaluations were positive, and circumstances differ in special education classrooms.
"I know the makeup of my children in the room," he said, of the evaluation that mentioned the sarcasm. "Some days they come in cursing me off. I can't write them up every two minutes. I don't think it was a fair assessment of what I do in the classroom."
Board member Susan Suter said she was "offended" by Dowling accusing board members of denying him tenure because of the controversy surrounding him replacing legendary head football coach Warren Wolf.
"I know nothing about football," Suter said. "This is about your job performance."
But there was evidence the football controversy – after he retired, Wolf did not agree with Dowling's hiring and later was successful in running for a seat on the board – did find its way into the hallways of Brick Township High School.
After board member Walter Campbell asked why none of Dowling's observations were performed by his building principal, as is customary, BTHS Principal Dennis Filippone admitted he was "advised by my superiors that it might not be in my best interest to observe Mr. Dowling" due to ongoing controversy.
Filippone said he was not ordered to refrain from observing Dowling, however.
"In hindsight, it was probably a bad decision" not to observe Dowling himself, said Filippone.
At one point in the hearing, board member John Talty said the district "created a job" for Dowling after originally hiring him as a coach, leading to other teachers being shuffled around to make room.
Dowling admitted he applied to be a coach and was offerred a regular teaching job during the hiring process. But further discussion on the matter led by Talty visibly upset Hrycenko, who turned to board attorney John Sahradnik and said, "Jack, make him stop."
"Stop this now or I will file charges," he said.
Sahradnik then advised board members to discuss only Dowling's teaching record.
Discussions continued, focusing on Dowling's classroom management skills and other issues cited in evaluations.
Eventually, board member Kim V. Terebush made a motion to extend Dowling a contract and offer him tenure. When it came to a vote, Terebush and Campbell voted yes; Talty voted no; and Len Cuppari, Susan Suter and Sharon Kight voted to abstain. Board member Larry Reid was not at the meeting.
Suter and Kight both said they needed more information before they could make a decision; Cuppari was forced to abstain because he is a principal in the Howell Township school district, where Dowling serves on the Board of Education.
Because there were not enough 'yes' to constitute a majority, Sahradnik said the result of the April vote – which did not extend tenure to Dowling – would still stand.
The board has 72 hours to hold another vote on the issue, however, and Dowling's attorney, Stephen B. Hunter, said his client would agree to extend that deadline.
Under state law, teachers must either be granted tenure or denied tenure and let go after three years in a school district. Dowling's third year will end on the last day of school this month.