At the School Ethics Commission’s regularly scheduled meeting July 25, 2023, six decisions were adopted. Of the six decisions, four resulted in the dismissal of the ethics charges that had been filed against the named respondents, all of whom were board members. As for the remaining two decisions:
Use of Board Counsel for Personal Gain. In C04-20, the SEC adopted a final decision finding that a board member violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(b), N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e), and N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(f) when they requested that board counsel conduct research regarding the conduct of a fellow board member. Importantly, the request from the named respondent, who was also the board president, was made without the knowledge of or notice to the full board and was initiated the day after the respondent lost their bid for reelection. As a result of the respondent’s request, the board incurred legal fees in excess of $5,000. Although, as board president, the respondent was authorized to seek legal services from board counsel, the request, based on the facts and circumstances presented, “was motivated by [their] own personal animus for a political rival.” Given the “substantial negative history and mutual disdain” between the parties, the respondent’s conduct was found to be in violation of several provisions of the School Ethics Act. Citing the respondent’s “blatant use of Board resources” for their “own motivations,” the SEC also modified the administrative law judge’s recommended penalty of reprimand to censure.
Unilateral and Unauthorized Investigation by a Board Member. In C20-20, the SEC adopted a final decision finding that a board member violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(c) and N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e) when they contacted vendors and other school districts, both directly and through their private employee who did not have a connection to the board; identified themselves as a member of the board in the communications; and indicated that the board was contemplating switching from MacBooks to Chromebooks when, in fact, “the Board had not considered a change.” In light of the fact that “Respondent not only committed such flagrant violations” of the School Ethics Act, but also recruited a private employee without any connection to the board to conduct an investigation on their behalf, the SEC recommended a penalty of censure.
Of note, the SEC did not consider any requests for advisory opinions, and did not vote to adopt, or make public, any advisory opinions. However, it did consider whether to remove A01-01 from its website (and public access), most likely because it may conflict with a more recently issued advisory opinion, or it may no longer be regarded as advice upon which school officials may rely.
Board members 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.