A complaint filed with the School Ethics Commission (SEC) on Nov. 2, 2020 alleged that a school board member violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(c) on multiple dates in 2020.

Specifically, the complaint alleged that the school board member violated the law which says that no  school official shall act in an official capacity in any matter where he or she, or a member of the  immediate family, has a personal involvement that creates some benefit to the school official or member of the immediate family.

In this case, two school districts shared the services of a superintendent. The school board member who was the subject of the complaint represented one of the two school districts served by the superintendent. The board member had two adult children working in the other district served by the same superintendent.

During the spring and summer of 2020, the board member took multiple actions regarding the merit goals and evaluation of the superintendent as well as shared services agreements for other staff. The board member, in her response to the complaint, cited an SEC advisory opinion [A09-18] she sought in 2018, seeking guidance as to whether she could participate in the search and hiring process for the superintendent while she had adult children working in another district.  In this advisory opinion, the SEC did not find that the member was prohibited from participation in the superintendent search and hiring process in 2018.

Thereafter, the board member stated that “it stood to reason” that if it was okay to hire the superintendent, then it would be appropriate to take actions on merit goals and evaluations after the superintendent was hired.

However, the SEC noted that in the in the original application for an advisory opinion, the person seeking the opinion left out some important details, including that the search would be for a superintendent sharing services with a district in which she had children working.

In the decision dated March 23, 2021, the commission found no probable cause to pursue the complaint against the school board member.

However, while the SEC did not pursue the complaint, it said the board member was “clearly prohibited in the future from participating in any action related to the superintendent and/or any other individual who may have supervisory authority over her children …”

The SEC ultimately found that the children, because they were fully independent, were not members of the board member’s immediate family but rather were considered “others.” As the complainant did not allege a violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(b), which limits the actions of school board members related to “others,” the SEC could not find a violation as alleged in the complaint as written.

More information on this case can be found here.

This case holds an important lesson for school board members. While the SEC’s advisory opinion program is an invaluable tool, it is imperative that the SEC be given all the “operative” facts necessary to make a determination.  Additionally, the SEC cautioned against extrapolating permission for certain future actions not specifically sought in the request for guidance. Information on seeking an advisory opinion from the SEC can be found here.

Any questions regarding this case should be discussed with the board attorney or NJSBA’s Department of Legal, Labor Relations and Policy at (609) 278-5254.