The School Ethics Commission held its last regularly scheduled meeting of the year Dec. 19, 2023.
At its meeting, the SEC discussed one ethics complaint pursuant to its previous regulations and five ethics complaints pursuant to its new/amended regulations; adopted four decisions in connection with previously discussed ethics complaints; adopted 11 decisions for those board of education members who failed to complete mandatory training by Dec. 31, 2022; adopted two new advisory opinions (A15-23 and A16-23); and considered making three advisory opinions (A59-95, A15-23, and A16-23) public.
Of the four decisions adopted by the SEC, three were posted on the SEC’s website; therefore, the nonposted consolidated matter remains pending. In addition, none of the three advisory opinions that the SEC considered making public have been posted on the SEC’s website, which is either because the SEC did not have the required number of members present (six) in order to make the opinions public, or because the SEC did not have a sufficient number of affirmative votes to make the advisory opinions public.
Posted Decisions: Dismissals
In C18-23, the complainant alleged that the named respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e) because she made repeated racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Zionist public statements on her professional social media platform(s) and in an academic publication, and did so without using a disclaimer. According to the complainant, the respondent’s statements undermined the public’s confidence in the board and could reasonably be interpreted as being offered in her official capacity as a board member. In dismissing the complaint for failing to plead sufficient credible facts, the SEC stated, “Respondent’s statements, while controversial and likely perceived as offensive and hurtful to members of the [d]istrict’s Jewish community as well as to the Jewish community as a whole, did not relate to the business of the Board and/or its operations, nor was there a nexus between the social media page and/or academic publication to her Board membership.”
In C37-23, the complainant contended that the named respondent violated (1) N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(i) because, in her capacity as a board member, she willfully and knowingly gave false information to a municipal court prosecutor. The false information claimed that district personnel were acting unlawfully, and violated (2) N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(j) because she “ ‘acted on and attempted to resolve her own unfounded’ complaints regarding the fulfilling of [Open Public Records Act] requests prior to referring her concerns to the [s]uperintendent … .” Based on the facts and circumstances pled, the SEC found that a reasonable person could not be led to believe that N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(i) and/or N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(j) had been violated. Not only did the complainant fail to demonstrate that any district personnel suffered any identifiable harm or were otherwise prevented from performing their job duties and responsibilities because of the information she provided to a municipal court prosecutor, the complainant also failed to explain how and why the respondent was required to report potential criminal conduct to the superintendent.
In C47-23, the complainants argued that the named respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(f) and N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(g) when he celebrated the removal of “rainbow safe space signs” in an article published in The Epoch Times, which included pictures from inside a district school. The complainants additionally alleged that the respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(d) and N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(f) when he spoke at a political campaign event and shared the “success we’ve had in removing the” safe space signs from classroom windows, and that he was “proud of what we accomplished for our kids.”
Through his public comments before the board (when he was not a board member), The Epoch Times article and the comments made during the campaign event, the complainants submitted that the named respondent interfered with the administration of the school. Following its review, the SEC determined that a reasonable person could not be led to believe that N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(f) and/or N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(g) had been violated. Per the SEC, the complainants failed to establish that the respondent’s assertions in the article were anything other than his own opinion (or were made at the request of, or on behalf of, any group or entity); the picture submitted by the respondent does not include the image of any student or otherwise reveal confidential information; and the complainants have not presented any evidence that the respondent gave a direct order to school personnel or became involved in the day-to-day administration of the district because, by the time the respondent made his comments in The Epoch Times article and spoke at the campaign event, the signs had already been removed. The SEC also noted that board member participation at a political campaign event does not, on its own, constitute action on behalf of, or at the request of, a special interest group.
Training Decisions: Violations and Penalties
The SEC adopted 11 decisions for those board of education members who, in violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-33 and N.J.A.C. 6A:28-4.1, failed to complete mandatory training by Dec. 31, 2022. In two of the adopted decisions, T09-23 and T17-23, the SEC recommended a penalty of censure, and in the other nine adopted decisions, T03-23, T04-23, T06-23, T07-23, T13-23, T19-23, T20-23, T21-23, and T22-23, the SEC recommended a penalty of removal. In eight of the nine matters for which the SEC recommended removal, the SEC recommended a modified penalty of either a 30-day (T04-23, T06-23, T13-23, T19-23, T20-23, T21-23, and T22-23) or a 60-day (T07-23) suspension if training is completed before the commissioner of education issues a final decision. In the ninth matter, T03-23, and because the named board member had previously been suspended for failing to complete training, the SEC only recommended removal.
Amendments to the SEC’s regulations became effective March 6, 2023, and enhanced penalties are now authorized for board of education members who fail to timely complete training. The SEC’s recommended penalties for the above training matters are consistent with the amendments set forth in N.J.A.C. 6A:28-4.3(b)-(d) and N.J.A.C. 6A:28-9.11.
As of the date of this writing, it is unknown whether exceptions to the penalties recommended by the SEC, appeals of the SEC’s findings of a violation(s), or both have been filed in connection with T03-23, T04-23, T06-23, T07-23, T09-23, T13-23, T17-23, T19-23, T20-23, T21-23, and/or T22-23. Nonetheless, the commissioner of education must now affirm, modify or reject the SEC’s decisions within the time period prescribed by law.
SEC’s Next Meeting
The SEC’s next regularly scheduled meeting, and the first meeting of 2024, will be held Jan. 23, 2024, in person.
As a reminder, school officials 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.