The School Ethics Commission (SEC) has reaffirmed that “board members do not abdicate their state and federal constitutional rights upon being sworn-in.”

In C07-19 a complainant in Bergen County alleged that a school board member violated the School Ethics Act when she placed a yard sign on her lawn, supporting the board’s separate spending proposal, which was on the ballot for the November 2018 election.

Additionally, the complaint alleged that the board member communicated with a citizen on a personal Facebook account and offered to provide the citizen with a similar yard sign that urged voters to support the ballot question.  The board member joined a group that was formed by community members and parents who supported the ballot question, though the board member was not involved in the formation, operation or promotion of the advocacy group.

The complaint alleged that the board member acted outside of her responsibilities as a board member and supported an interest group without stating that the opinions were hers alone and not that of the local board of education. On June 19, 2019, the SEC did not agree and dismissed the charges against board member.

First, the SEC held that “the display of a sign on the front lawn of Respondent’s personal residence does not, in and of itself, establish that Respondent took ‘board action’ to effectuate policies and plans, or ‘took action’ that was unrelated to her duties as a board member.”

Second, the SEC held that the complainant did not present factual evidence that the board member  took any action on behalf of, or at the request of, a special interest group. Additionally, there was no evidence that she surrendered her independent judgment to the group.

In fact, the board member joined the group as a parent and used only her personal Facebook page and email to discuss matters concerning the ballot question. Contrary to the allegations in the complaint, the Facebook thread on the board member’s personal Facebook page, did in fact indicate she was a member of the board of education and that the views expressed on the page were her own and not expressed on behalf of the board.

The SEC specifically noted that postings were on the board member’s personal Facebook page and that as such, she was in her capacity as a private citizen. The board member’s endorsement of the ballot question was not a violation of the ethics act because it was done as a private citizen and included an appropriate disclaimer.

While this decision made it clear that board members do not cease to be parents, citizens or taxpayers upon taking office, it is imperative that they be mindful of their actual and perceived conduct when acting in a personal capacity and to always conspicuously state that respective matters are not reflective of board positions.  Any questions should be directed to the school board attorney or to the NJSBA’s Department of Legal and Labor Relations at (609) 278-5254.

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