On Feb. 1, the New Jersey State Board of Education adopted updated School Ethics Commission regulations. These regulations contain two major changes for board and trustee members.  Last week, School Board Notes focused on the changes to the training requirements. This week, the focus will be on the changes to the rules concerning advisory opinions.

  1. What is an advisory opinion?

An advisory opinion is a written document from the School Ethics Commission concerning whether any proposed activity or conduct would constitute a violation of the provisions of the School Ethics Act. N.J.S.A. 18A:12-31., N.J.A.C. 6A:28-5.1. 

  1. Who can seek an advisory opinion?

As a “school official” under the School Ethics Act, a board member/trustee may seek an advisory opinion regarding their own proposed conduct or the proposed conduct of another school official within the district or school. An attorney representing a school official may also seek an advisory opinion, however, they must provide the name of the school official who is the subject of the request, as well as the school official’s school district, charter school, or renaissance school project. N.J.A.C. 6A:28-5.1.

  1. How is a request for an advisory opinion submitted?

Requests for advisory opinions can be submitted to the School Ethics Commission by emailing the commission at school.ethics@doe.nj.gov and also mailing a hard copy to: School Ethics Commission, N.J. Department of Education, P.O. Box 500, Trenton, NJ 08625. The request shall include the details of the proposed conduct and the exact role that the school official will have in the proposed conduct.  The dates of the proposed conduct must also be included. The requesting school official must also provide proof that they have given a copy of the request to the school official that they are asking about, if it is not a request about their own conduct.

  1. What other requirements are there for seeking advisory opinions?

A school official must include a statement in their request that “the school official has reviewed the public advisory opinions available on the Commission’s website, and the concern raised in the request has not already been addressed by the Commission in an existing advisory opinion.” 

  1. How does a school official research public advisory opinions?

A school official may access existing public advisory opinions by visiting this webpage, which contains a listing of public advisory opinions issued by the commission. The school official may also seek information on existing advisory opinions by contacting the NJSBA Legal, Labor and Policy Services Department at 609-278-5279 or their board attorney.

  1. Can a request for an advisory opinion be rejected by the commission?

Yes. A request for an advisory opinion may be rejected by the commission if the request does not include the required information or is duplicative of an already existing advisory opinion. A request for an advisory opinion may also be declined where there is “insufficient time to consider and respond to the request before the proposed activity occurs.” Where a request contains all the proper information “but there is, in fact, an existing public advisory opinion that is responsive to the inquiry, the requesting school official faces no harm or penalty” and may be directed to the opinion(s) that is responsive to their inquiry. N.J.A.C. 6A:28-5.2. See Response to Comment 27. 

7. Is the request and subsequent answer made public or is it kept private?

All requests are kept private, as well as the subsequent answer, unless the Commission votes to make it public. N.J.A.C. 6A:28-5.2(e). If the advisory opinion is made public by the Commission, all identifying information is removed. Please note that the Commission may share any request for an opinion and the Commission’s answer with the board attorney, unless the requestor specifically asks for non-disclosure of the correspondence. N.J.A.C. 6A:28-5.2(a)(2). See Response to Comment 26.

For more information about these new regulations, please contact the NJSBA Legal, Labor and Policy Services Department at 609-278-5279 or your board attorney.