With the November school election season underway, board candidates may have questions concerning local teacher’s union involvement in the school board election. The following will provide information to candidates about the current state of the law.
Can candidates be endorsed by a local school employees’ union? Yes. However, accepting such an endorsement may restrict the candidate’s ability to participate fully in certain discussions and votes of the board of education. The School Ethics Commission has ruled that it would be a violation of the School Ethics Act for board members who are endorsed by the local union to participate in current negotiations with that union. Additionally, even if the board is not currently in negotiations, an endorsement by the union may have an impact on upcoming negotiations depending on the time that has elapsed between the endorsement and the start of negotiations. See SEC Advisory Opinion A13- 02 (12/2/02). Board members should consult with the board attorney concerning any potential or actual ethical conflicts arising under the school laws.
Can union endorsement have an impact on other board activities besides negotiations? In a recent opinion, the SEC advised that “endorsement of a candidate by a local and/or statewide union does not create a per se future conflict unless a financial contribution is given and is intended to influence the board member in the discharge of his/her duties as a board member. Legitimate political activity, without any greater involvement (such as a campaign contribution intended to influence a board member in the discharge of his/her duties), does not violate the Act, and does not create a per se conflict under the Act.” However, the SEC stressed that the above is a general rule and every matter that comes before it is dependent on the facts presented. See SEC Advisory Opinion A10-18 6/26/18. In this particular case, the local teachers’ union endorsed the board member and sent flyers to its members endorsing the candidate. The union also offered its financial support but the board member refused. Furthermore, negotiations on the current union contract had already been completed and the contract would not expire for another three years.
What if the candidate expresses support for the union and the union supports the candidate, but does not formally endorse the candidate? Without more involvement, there is no ethics violation. A board member may serve on the negotiations committee without restriction. See SEC Advisory Opinion A15-18 4/25/18
Can sitting board members endorse candidates? Yes. Current board members who wish to endorse a candidate should comply with SEC Advisory Opinion A02-06 (3/10/06) and A36-14 (10/29/14) concerning the expression of personal opinions. These opinions require a board member to indicate that such endorsement is their personal view and not that of the board of education; to provide accurate information that is not confidential; and to ensure that this private action does not compromise the board. Furthermore, regardless of whether hardcopy, electronic or social media postings are contemplated, appropriate disclaimers must be included in each medium.
For further information, contact the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254 or your local board attorney.