In a recent decision, the School Ethics Commission found that a chief school administrator (CSA) who had a preexisting mentoring relationship with a job applicant did not violate the School Ethics Act because the CSA merely forwarded the hiring committee’s recommendation to the charter school board.

In the case, decided on Nov. 24, 2020, an applicant for an assistant principal position at a New Jersey charter school had known the CSA since the time that the applicant was a middle school student and the CSA was then a teacher who ran an after school program the applicant attended. The CSA and the applicant remained in touch “on an annual basis,” and had a “role model/mentor” relationship. The applicant referred to the CSA as her aunt, though this was a term of endearment, as the two were not actually related.

The job opening was posted, and multiple applicants were interviewed for the position by the business administrator and another administrator. The CSA had no awareness that the applicant applied for the job, and was not involved in the interview process and did not otherwise exercise any influence over the selection process. She forwarded the recommendation of the interview committee, which had determined that the applicant was the most qualified candidate, to the board and in that letter disclosed that she knew the applicant.

The complainant alleged violations of the school ethics act stemming from the CSA’s prior relationship with the applicant. Under consideration was whether the CSA violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(b), prohibiting a school official from “us[ing] or attempt[ing] to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges, advantages or employment for himself, members of his immediate family or others; . . . .” The applicant was deemed an “other” under the act. It was further alleged the CSA violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(d), prohibiting a school official from undertaking “any employment or service, whether compensated or not, which might reasonably be expected to prejudice his independence of judgment in the exercise of his official duties; . . . .”

Prior to going to the school ethics commission, an administrative law judge initially heard the matter and found no violation of the school ethics act. When the matter came before the commission for a final decision, it agreed with the judge’s initial ruling. The commission noted that multiple candidates applied and were interviewed, and therefore the applicant did not receive any “unwarranted” advantage from the CSA. However, the commission indicated that had the recommended applicant been the sole applicant, further fact-finding might have been warranted. Because there was no evidence that the CSA had any role in the hiring process beyond forwarding the recommendation of the hiring committee to the board, there was no violation of the school ethics act, and the matter was dismissed.

This recent decision provides further clarification about the extent prior non-familial relationships can create conflicts in the hiring process. This decision leaves open the issue about whether a conflict could have been found had the CSA had some further involvement in the hiring process.

School board members are encouraged to discuss this decision as well as the requirements of the School Ethics Act with their board attorney. For additional information, please contact the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.

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