On March 26, 2024, the School Ethics Commission held its regularly scheduled monthly meeting and took the following action: discussed one ethics complaint pursuant to the SEC’s previous regulations and nine ethics complaints pursuant to the SEC’s new/amended regulations; adopted seven decisions in connection with previously discussed ethics complaints; considered a new advisory opinion request (A05-24); and additionally considered making six advisory opinions public (A15-23, A01-24, A02-24, A03-24, A04-24, and A05-24).

Of the seven decisions adopted by the SEC, four were posted on the SEC’s website; therefore, the remaining three matters (C25-23, C56-23 and C58-23) remain pending. Once again, none of the six advisory opinions that the SEC considered making public are yet available, which is either because the SEC did not have the required number of members present to make the opinions public (six), or because the SEC did not have a sufficient number of affirmative votes to make the advisory opinions public (six).

Final Decisions

After the SEC transmits a matter to the Office of Administrative Law, an administrative law judge adjudicates the claims. Following a hearing(s), or the filing of a dispositive motion(s), the administrative law judge issues an initial decision, which the SEC can then affirm, modify, or reject as to the findings of fact, legal conclusions, and recommended penalty (if any). The final decisions in C21-21 and C99-22 were adopted following the review of separately issued initial decisions.

In C21-21, the official Facebook page for a mayoral candidate featured a “campaign poster” or endorsement from the respondent containing his picture and title as the “Board of Education President.” The campaign poster had a disclaimer at the bottom of the poster in small print and indicated that the endorsement was offered in the respondent’s individual capacity as a citizen and resident, and not on behalf of the board. The complainant also submitted evidence indicating that the respondent “liked” his own endorsement. After being asked why he used his board of education president title in the endorsement, his title was removed, and the disclaimer enlarged.

In affirming the administrative law judge’s  dismissal of the alleged violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(f), the SEC agreed that the evidence did not support a finding that the respondent surrendered his judgment to the mayor or used the schools to gain a benefit for himself or for the mayor; credible testimonial evidence found that the respondent was not aware of the campaign poster or consulted with before the endorsement was posted on Facebook; the complainant failed to prove that the respondent approved the endorsement by “liking” it on Facebook, as the respondent credibly testified that his spouse shares and has access to his Facebook account, and that she may have “liked” it; and because the respondent did not authorize the poster, he did not take any action in violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(f).

In C99-22, a first-grade teacher posted a picture of herself wearing a T-shirt that stated, “COLUMBUS WAS A MURDERER,” on her public Instagram account in June 2021. On Oct. 11, 2022, the teacher wore the same T-shirt while teaching her first-grade class. Later that day, the respondent received a text message from another teacher about the first-grade teacher’s attire which stated, in relevant part:  “… Today our new first grade team member … had a [T]-shirt on that said: Columbus is a murderer and on the back it said: stop romanticizing genocide. … It’s so insane at school!”  The respondent then posted, without editorializing, the substance of the text message on a private Facebook page (of which he is a member). Approximately two hours later, the respondent removed the post. Of importance, the respondent did not specifically name the teacher who wore the T-shirt, did not add any commentary to his post, and did not identify himself as a board member.

In affirming the administrative law judge’s dismissal of the alleged violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(g), the SEC agreed that the respondent did not disclose confidential information in his Facebook post; a picture of the teacher wearing the t-shirt was publicly available on her social media account months before the teacher wore it to school; the information that the respondent posted on social media was not obtained through confidential board communications; and any discussion regarding disciplinary action for the teacher did not occur until a week after the teacher wore the T-shirt to school, which was months after his Facebook post had been removed.

Probable Cause Decisions

The SEC also adopted two probable cause review decisions at its meeting on March 26, 2024. Pursuant to the SEC’s amended regulation, “Probable cause shall be found when the facts and circumstances presented in the complaint and written statement would lead a reasonable person to believe that the [School Ethics Act] has been violated.” N.J.A.C. 6A:28-9.7(a).

In C44-23, the complainant contended that following the “resignation” of a board member in the summer of 2022, which the complainant claimed was prompted by the named respondent’s (the then business administrator/board secretary) promise to the resigning board that he would ensure his appointment to an administrative position in the district, the respondent unabashedly pushed for the appointment of his “close friend” to the vacant seat on the board, and made “promises” to other board members as a quid pro quo for their vote. Not only did the respondent call the complainant and “guarantee” that he would be successful in his upcoming bid for reelection if he voted to appoint his “close friend,” he also promised another board member that he would “find money in the budget” so that his spouse’s district employment would be changed from part-time to full-time, thus making her eligible for health benefits if he voted similarly.

In addition to the above, the complainant stated that there was a “contentious campaign” for the November 2022 board election, and that the named respondent represented that he (the respondent) would become the next superintendent if he ensured the victory of the candidates who were politically aligned with the mayor.

Relevant here, the respondent’s phone call to the complainant guaranteeing reelection occurred on July 27, 2022; the respondent’s “close friend” was appointed to the vacant seat on the board at the meeting on Aug. 22, 2022; and, at this same meeting, the employment status of the board member’s spouse changed from part time to full time. However, the complainant did not file an ethics complaint until April 14, 2023, and argued that it took him until the January 2023 reorganization meeting to fully uncover the extent of the respondent’s “intentions.”

In finding the complaint untimely because it was not filed within 180 days, the SEC stated that the complainant’s argument that he did not become “fully” aware of the respondent’s conspiracy until the reorganization meeting in January 2023 is “unpersuasive”; the complainant was aware of the telephone call that he received from the respondent on the day it occurred (July 27, 2022); the complainant was aware that the respondent’s “close friend” was appointed to the board on Aug. 22, 2022, and also aware that the employment status of a board member’s spouse also changed on that date; and, regarding the board member who resigned in the summer of 2022, the record only reveals a “promise” that the respondent may have made, and does not contain “a date in which [the resigning board member] was appointed to that position, or if he was ever appointed.”  Per the SEC, “[a]ny alleged improper actions that Respondent took to encourage [the board member] to resign and/or to secure the appointment of [his close friend] to the board occurred in the summer of 2022, and Complainant was required to file a Complaint within the 180 days from that time, but failed to do so.”

The facts at issue in C55-23 generally concern the respondent’s participation in the Education Labour Relations Council Programme Launch that was held in South Africa in February 2023, and which relates to the implementation of the Labor Management Collaboration Initiative in the district. These programs (the LMCI and ELRC launch), were, per the complainant, designed by Rutgers University, School of Management and Labor Relations, and “promoted” by an individual who is married to a teacher in the district. The complainant claimed that the respondent encouraged teacher participation in these programs and that, by doing so, she became involved in the administration of the district, and “simultaneously ced[ed] influence, authority, and control to the [Union.]”

In finding that the purported violations of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(a), N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(c), N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e), N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(f), and N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(j) were not supported by probable cause, the SEC found: the board voted to approve the trip expenses for the respondent (and others), and the trip itself was approved by the superintendent and the interim executive county superintendent; the respondent did not initiate the board’s interaction with the SMLR, as the board had been collaborating with the SMLR to implement the LMCI for years before the respondent was even on the board; the complainant has not established how the respondent’s relationship with any Rutgers University personnel influenced the functioning of the board, or resulted in her receipt of a nonspecified gain; and the complainant failed to produce sufficient factual evidence that the respondent behaved unethically or otherwise violated any provision of the School Ethics Act.

SEC’s Next Meeting

The SEC’s next meeting is currently scheduled for April 30, 2024.

As a reminder, school officials who would like to request an advisory opinion regarding their own or another school official’s prospective conduct may do so through the SEC.

For further information about these matters, please contact the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at 609-278-5279, or your board attorney for specific legal advice.