Three decisions of interest to school officials have been released recently. The decisions come from the education commissioner, a federal district court, and the state Appellate division.

Board’s Student Discipline Action Reversed In a recent decision, the New Jersey Commissioner of Education determined that a school board acted in an arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable fashion when it disciplined a student-athlete for off-campus alcohol consumption. In this particular instance, the student posted two pictures to an Instagram account showing two high school students consuming alcohol while one was wearing a sweat shirt bearing the school’s insignia. Following a disciplinary hearing, the board imposed a thirty-day suspension from extra-curricular activities.

In an appeal of the board’s actions, the commissioner held that in order to impose discipline under such circumstances, the district must demonstrate a clear nexus between the behavior and student health or safety; then must establish that the behavior materially and substantially interfered with the orderly operation of the school. While the nexus between underage alcohol consumption and student safety was readily apparent, the board was unable to show that the conduct materially and substantially interfered with the orderly operation of the school. Accordingly, the Commissioner reversed the board’s disciplinary action.

Reverse Discrimination The New Jersey District Court recently decided that a “reverse discrimination” claim by an applicant for a special education position could proceed against the board where the superintendent recommended that applicant’s appointment. In Shields v. Penns Grove-Carneys Point Regional. Sch. Dist., the superintendent interviewed and recommended the appointment of a white male to an open special education position. However, during the public comment portion of the meeting in which the board was going to appoint Shields, a community activist complained about the lack of minority teachers in the district and specifically advocated against Shields’ appointment. The board subsequently rejected the superintendent’s recommendation. Shields filed a complaint in federal court asserting reverse discrimination. The board filed a motion to dismiss the complaint but, following a preliminary hearing, the court found evidence suggesting that the board rejected Shields based on his race. The matter will now continue on to a full hearing. NJSBA will continue to monitor this matter.

Assignment of Claim Defeats Conflict In a decision issued March 7, the Appellate division, the state’s second highest court, ruled that a board member resolved a pending conflict of interest by assigning rights under a claim for unpaid sick leave to her adult daughter. In Stargell v. Snyder, Margaret Snyder worked as a school nurse in the Pennsauken Twp. school district for 27 years before retiring. By the time of her retirement, Snyder had accrued more than $14,000 in unused sick leave and upon retirement, and she filed a claim against the board for compensation. While the claim was pending, Snyder ran for and was elected to the board of education in the November 2013 election. Subsequent to the election, a complaint was filed asserting that because Snyder had a claim pending against the board, the law prohibited her from taking her seat. That statute prohibits any board member from having a contract with or claim against the board on which he or she sits.

Five days prior to taking the oath of office, Snyder assigned her claim for unused sick leave to her adult daughter, who was married and lived separately from her mother. The board ultimately settled with Snyder’s daughter by agreeing to pay the claim. Snyder recused herself from settlement discussions and abstained from voting on the settlement. Although the unpaid sick leave claim was now settled, the conflict complaint continued under the rationale that Snyder retained an “indirect” interest in the claim because of her family relationship with her daughter; that indirect interest, according to the plaintiff, was also a violation of the statute which prevented her continued membership on the board.

The court found however, that the assignment was valid and effective prior to Snyder’s swearing in and that Snyder would not benefit in a substantial and material way from the claim. Moreover, the court found no evidence that the assignment was invalid. Absent any evidence that Snyder’s daughter was a member of Snyder’s household, or that the two were in a financial relationship, the court refused to draw an inference establishing an indirect interest in the assigned claim. The court ultimately dismissed the complaint.