The School Ethics Commission recently released 10 new advisory opinions. Through advisory opinions, the SEC opines on whether a board member’s prospective conduct would violate the School Ethics Act. This article is the first of a two-part series examining these new advisory opinions.

Advisory Opinion A21-20 The board member asked the SEC if they would be precluded from voting on the collective negotiations agreement as well as from participating in negotiations and the search for, evaluation of, and contract negotiations with the superintendent. Specifically, the board member sought clarification as to whether:

  • The board member’s sister-in-law (spouse of their spouse’s brother), who was a teacher in the district and served on the local union’s negotiations committee, was a “relative” under the SEA.
  • Whether the fact that the board member’s spouse co-owned a business with their brother (married to the district employee) was indirect financial involvement so as to create a conflict.

The SEC opined that the sister-in-law was not a “relative” but was instead an “other” under the SEA. As a result, absent another conflict, the board member could participate in collective negotiations with the union, vote on the collective negotiations agreement and participate in matters related to the superintendent as long as the board member did not “extend an unwarranted privilege, advantage, or employment” to themselves, members of their immediate family, or others (including the sister-in-law). Additionally, the spouse’s business relationship with their brother did not create a conflict, though the board member would need to recuse themselves if matters related to the spouse’s business came before the board.

Advisory Opinion A01-21 The SEC considered a situation in which a board member started an accounting firm after being elected to the board and is the owner and operator of the firm. At least one district employee is a client of the firm and pays for its accounting services. The board member serves on the negotiations committee, and an accounting client serves on the union’s negotiations team.

The SEC determined that “the Board member would violate the Act if the Board member, a member of the accounting firm, and/or business provides accounting services to any District employees and/or families.” Furthermore, the member is required to recuse themselves from a matter involving the district employees to whom the board member, a member of the firm, or the business provides/provided accounting services. The board member was also required to terminate membership on any committees where such membership “causes the Board member to ‘sit across the table’ from a client(s) and/or take any action which directly impacts a client(s) . . . .”

Advisory Opinion A03-21 In this opinion, a board member was in the process of creating a nonprofit entity that provides families in immediate need with meals, gift cards, or supplies, or directly pays household bills. At the time of the request, the nonprofit did not have 501(c)(3) status, and contributions were made by providing the board member with gift cards and sending the member money through online payment systems. The board member asked the SEC if there were limitations related to assisting families in the district and collaborating with the district’s parent-teacher organization.

In its opinion, the SEC determined that because the nonprofit was not under the control of, and not overseen or managed by, the board, the board member was not prohibited in being involved in the nonprofit per se. However, the board member would violate the SEA if the board member or the nonprofit “directly solicited financial contributions, donations, or supplies from District families; provided services to District families; and/or collaborated with the District PTO” while the member was on the board.

Advisory Opinion A04-21 Here, prior to joining the board, a board member had addressed the board as a parent in regard to concerns about school schedules, student health, and delayed start times. The member became involved in a related national nonprofit that does some lobbying on issues, first joining as a member and then becoming a volunteer chapter leader for the nonprofit in the member’s town. The local chapter had a Facebook page, private group and a listing on the national nonprofit’s page. The member also joined another organization, which addressed similar issues, as a parent volunteer to advocate for “healthy school hours” in New Jersey.

In its opinion, the SEC advised that because the nonprofit was not an organization that was controlled, overseen, or otherwise managed by the board or district, the SEA did not prevent the member’s involvement in the organization in general. Moreover, the member was not generally prohibited from serving in a leadership role. However, the board member should recuse themselves from any matter that comes before the board that involves the nonprofit. Finally, the member may not provide information about the nonprofit to the board, district employees, or district families.

Advisory Opinion A12-21 The School Ethics Commission addressed a situation where a board member had interviewed for a sales and marketing representative position for a company that provides a platform that is “an educational healthcare solution for school nurses to collect, track and manage student health information.” The member wanted to know if they would violate the SEA by accepting the position.

The SEC stated that the potential employment would not be a per se conflict of interest. However, the board member would need to recuse themselves from discussions and votes regarding: (1) the company; (2) any product or service that the company may potentially provide to the district; and (3) “competing vendors or entities that offer the same (or similar) products or services as the Company.” Moreover, if the board were to “procure a product or services through/from the Company,” the board member could not serve as the company’s representative in the district. The member also could not use or rely on their board membership in marketing the company and its products or services to other school districts.

It should be noted that the SEC issues these advisory opinions based on the particular facts presented before it. For more information about these advisory opinions as well complying with the SEA, board members should consult with their board attorney or call the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at 609-278-5279. Learn how to request an advisory opinion here.