Recently, the School Ethics Commission (SEC) made public two advisory opinions which it had approved for public status at its March 22 meeting. Board members and school administrators are encouraged to review these opinions with their board attorney to determine the impact that they may have on their local board operations.
School Administrators with Relatives Employed in Other Districts In advisory opinion A40-15, the SEC responded to a joint request from a superintendent and school business administrator who had relatives employed as teachers in other school districts, who were members of their respective local education associations; local affiliates of the NJEA. Neither relative was involved with the local union negotiating team or otherwise involved in union activity. The superintendent’s relative was a non-dependent daughter, who did not live with the superintendent. The school business administrator’s relative was a sister-in-law. The SEC advised that the analysis in A16-15, an advisory opinion that advises board of education members in a similar situation, applies to school administrators, including the superintendent and the school business administrator.
A16-15 advised that board of education members, (and now school administrators) who had relatives employed by another school district, who were members of a similar statewide union with which the board was negotiating, would not automatically violate the School Ethics Act (SEA) if they were to participate in negotiations and vote on the contract with the local union. The conflict would hinge on whether the relative had a heightened involvement with the local union. A conflict would exist if the relative were an officer of the NJEA or the local education association, were a member of the local negotiations team, or had some other leadership role with the local union such as a grievance chairperson, building representative, or county representative. Absent heightened union involvement or other facts to suggest a conflict, the board member (and now school administrator) could fully participate in the collective negotiations process without violating the SEA.
Police Office/Board Member as Local DARE Officer In opinion A01-16, the SEC responded to a request regarding a newly elected board of education member, who was employed as a police officer in the municipality and was assigned as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) officer in the school district. The board member/D.A.R.E. officer provided the students with drug resistance education, through a program aligned with the nationwide D.A.R.E. America standards, interacting with students approximately once per week, over a three-month period. In addition to his role in the schools as a D.A.R.E. officer, the new board member also conducted safety checks in the district’s schools in his capacity as a law enforcement officer. On a daily basis he would spend “five to ten minutes in each building walking hallways to ensure doors are secure and other safety protocols are followed.” During these checks he did not typically interact with students and his contact with staff was limited to discussions with the school principal or his/her designee.
Notably, the board member did not serve as the “School Resource Officer” (SRO); a position which involves an assigned police officer with the responsibility to “actively work to improve the security of the school… and to forge positive relationships between students, staff, parents and law enforcement.” The SRO is encouraged to speak and develop relationships with students and staff. The Principal is also able to require the SRO to attend evening and after school events. Previously, in Advisory Opinion A31-05, the SEC advised that the SRO position involved “significant entanglements with the district, its staff, students and parents,” and due to that level of entanglement, a board member could not serve as an SRO in the same district in which he served as a board member.
It was acknowledged that the board member had a conflict on the board with regard to matters touching upon the shared services agreement between the school district and the police department, as well as issues arising regarding the D.A.R.E. program and its use in the school district. However, the question was whether the board member’s role, despite being narrower than that of SRO, created an absolute conflict such that the board member could not simultaneously serve on the board and be employed by the police department in the capacity of D.A.R.E. officer and/or conduct daily safety checks of the schools.
The SEC determined that the regular, daily interaction of the board member with the schools and its personnel was in substantial conflict with his duties on the board of education. The board member would be in violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(a) if he were to continue his current role with the police department in such a way as to entangle himself in the affairs of the school district. The conflict was not that the board member was a police officer, but with the assignment of duties, which requires his extensive, day-to-day involvement with school district personnel and facilities. While the board member’s involvement was less than that of an SRO, the board member’s activities still involved significant entanglements with the district, its staff, students, and parents. The board member’s status in the school was similar to that of an employee, which would compromise his judgment as a board member. This regular interaction between district staff, students, and parents meant he could be viewed as a natural liaison between the board, the schools and the police department. His roles as a board member and D.A.R.E./law enforcement officer blur the distinction between the two positions and their respective obligations, which would compromise his judgment on the board.
The SEC advised that the board member would violate N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(a), and (d) of the Act and N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(c) and (j) of the Code of Ethics for School Board Members if he were to serve as a member of the board of education while also being assigned by the police department as the D.A.R.E. Program Officer, to conduct daily safety checks of the schools and to handle “any matter involving juveniles.” In rendering its advice, the SEC acknowledged that it was not stating a police officer cannot serve on a board of education, but that the assignments of this board member, which required his extensive daily interaction with the schools, presented the inescapable likelihood for conflicts. His assignment to the schools and with juveniles created the situation where his employment was so entangled with matters touching upon the schools and the school district as to be incompatible with his service on the board.