New Jersey’s acting commissioner of education and the School Ethics Commission recently issued new decisions under the School Ethics Act, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-21 et seq. Specifically, two of these decisions further clarified N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1I, which states, “I will recognize that authority rests with the board of education and will make no personal promises nor take any private action that may compromise the board.”
In May, a case came before the acting commissioner, Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, in which an entire board as well as an individual board member were named in a legal action against the board. The board members, relying on the advice of the board attorney, cast votes during a board meeting to approve a settlement in that action. The acting commissioner upheld the SEC’s finding that the board members did not violate N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e) because they made no promises to anyone related to voting or executing the settlement agreement, and they did not act outside their official capacity as board members.
However, the acting commissioner upheld the SEC’s determination that the board members violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(c), which states:
No school official, or member of his immediate family, or business organization in which he has an interest, shall solicit or accept any gift, favor, loan, political contribution, service, promise of future employment, or other thing of value based upon an understanding that the gift, favor, loan, contribution, service, promise, or other thing of value was given or offered for the purpose of influencing him, directly or indirectly, in the discharge of his official duties.
The acting commissioner reasoned that the legal action brought claims against the board members personally and outside their capacity as board members, and “[t]herefore, appellants’ [the board members] interest in resolving the claims is not fully shared with the public.” It was noted that the action, however, involved the entire board and the members relied on advice of the board attorney. Thus, the acting commissioner concurred with the SEC’s recommended penalty of reprimand.
In June, the SEC considered a matter in which a board member publicly responded, via a Facebook message sent to community members, to an individual’s comment made in front of the board at a public meeting. The board member wrote a disclaimer before the post to establish she was speaking in her capacity as an individual, not as a board member, in her post. Specifically, the board member stated in her message: “I am on the . . . [board] but I am reaching out to you tonight as an individual, fellow parent, alum of [the district], and taxpayer.”
The SEC dismissed the complaint, finding that no violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e) occurred. The SEC reiterated that board members do not lose their First Amendment rights. It further found that the board member here had made it “abundantly clear” her speech was that of a private citizen and not made as a member of the board, even if the member was providing her personal opinion on a board-related matter.
Further, the SEC found that the member had not violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(g), which requires board members “to hold confidential all matters pertaining to the schools which, if disclosed, would needlessly injure individuals or the schools” as well as to “provide accurate information and, in concert with [their] fellow board members, interpret to the staff the aspirations of the community for its school.” In finding no violation, the SEC determined that: (1) the board member had provided the disclaimer and (2) the statement the board member was commenting on was made at a public meeting. Additionally, to the extent the statements were not accurate, it was the board member’s personal opinion and, since the board member did not receive a written copy of the statement until after the post, a reasonable mistake.
The SEC issues decisions based on the particular facts presented before it. For more information about the decisions discussed in this article as well as complying with the School Ethics Act more generally, board members should consult with their board attorney or call the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at 609-278-5279.