The School Ethics Commission held its regularly scheduled monthly meeting April 30, 2024, and took the following action: did not discuss any ethics complaints pursuant to the SEC’s previous regulations; discussed eight ethics complaints pursuant to the SEC’s new/amended regulations; adopted 10 decisions concerning previously discussed ethics complaints; considered four new advisory opinion requests (A06-24, A07-24, A08-24, and A09-24), as well as requests for clarification in A15-23 and A16-23; and also considered making nine advisory opinions public (A01-24 through A09-24).

Of the 10 decisions adopted by the SEC, eight were posted on the SEC’s website; therefore, the other two matters (C63-23 and C74-23) remain pending. As in the past several months, none of the nine advisory opinions that the SEC considered making public are posted on the SEC’s website, which is either because the SEC did not have the required number of members present to make the opinions public (six), or because the SEC did not have a sufficient number of affirmative votes to make the advisory opinions public (also six).

This article is limited to a discussion of the decisions adopted by the SEC in connection with C64-23, C69-23 and C73-23.

Probable Cause Review Decisions

The SEC also adopted seven “PC Review,” or “Probable Cause Review” decisions, at its April 30 meeting. Pursuant to the SEC’s amended regulation, “Probable cause shall be found when the facts and circumstances presented in the complaint and written statement would lead a reasonable person to believe that the [School Ethics Act] has been violated.” N.J.A.C. 6A:28-9.7(a).

In its review, the SEC determined that none of the seven complaints pled sufficient facts and circumstances to warrant a finding of probable cause and, as a result, were dismissed. The operative facts from C64-23, C69-23 and C73-23 are as follows:

  • In C64-23, the complainant suggested that the named respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(g) when, as an “administrator” or “moderator” of a private Facebook group called “OCNJ School Discussion,” he approved and/or allowed posts containing false information about the district (Count 1); and violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(f) when “he posted, on six dates, various partisan political articles and statements on the OCNJ School Discussion page that reflected the views of the special interest groups to which he belongs, without a disclaimer” (Count 2). Despite a request from the named respondent, the SEC did not find that the complaint was frivolous and/or that sanctions should be imposed.
  • In C69-23, the complainant argued that the named respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(d) “when he made statements at a board meeting encouraging taxpayers to vote against the planned facilities referendum because it superseded the [d]istrict administration’s request regarding ‘necessary facilities maintenance’” (Count 1); and violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(d) “when he made statements at a [b]oard meeting that the condition of [d]istrict facilities is ‘awful’ and that he would tear them down, because he supplanted his judgment for that of [d]istrict administration” (Count 2).
  • In C73-23, the complainant claimed that the named respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(d) “through her involvement in local politics, and that she has shown ‘by her illegitimate and unlawful actions that she will go to extreme measures and will be swayed by others,’ demonstrating that she has ‘relinquished her independent judgment’ as a [b]oard member” (in Counts 1-2); and violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(f) because she “undermined a legitimate political process by obtaining signatures for herself and for the gain of political friends, and fraudulently covered up her involvement in such activity” (Count 2). Although requested by the named respondent, the SEC did not find that the complaint was frivolous and/or that sanctions should be imposed.

Although dismissed for lack of probable cause, the decision in C64-23 contained instructive language for school officials who serve as an administrator/moderator of a private social media account, and for those who share their partisan political beliefs on social media platforms. As to the former, the SEC stated, “merely serving as an administrator of a social media page is not a per se violation of the [School Ethics] Act, nor does the viewpoint of a social media post, on its own, result in an ethical violation.” Nonetheless, the SEC cautioned that, “administrators of social media pages maintain responsibility for the content of their pages, and as such, must exercise caution because they could potentially violate the [School Ethics] Act by the nature of the posts they approve and/or allow to be posted.”

With regard to sharing one’s partisan political beliefs on social media, the SEC advised that, “simply sharing the same beliefs as a special interest group, without taking some action on behalf of that group, does not amount to a violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(f).” C73-23 also affirmed that a school official’s involvement in partisan political activity does not in itself violate the School Ethics Act.

As for the prerogative and the right of board members to publicly share their opinions on board matters, the decision in C69-23 also reiterated that, “[b]oard members are permitted to express opinions at public [b]oard meetings regarding the items at issue,” and a person’s “disagreement” with an expressed position “does not render it an ethics violation.” In addition, a board member’s “support of a position contrary to the opinion of the [d]istrict administration is not giving a direct order to school personnel, or becoming directly involved in activities or functions that are the responsibility of school personnel, or the day-to-day administration of the [d]istrict.”

Stay Tuned for Our Next Article

In next week’s edition of School Board Notes, we will discuss the remaining five decisions adopted by the SEC at its April 30 meeting.

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.