As part of its continued focus to provide resources to school board presidents, the New Jersey School Boards Association will be answering questions through its monthly Board President’s Corner column. Our next question is below. Submit your question and you may see it featured next time.
Question: How can a board president address challenging or disruptive behavior by a board member?
The School Ethics Act, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-21 et seq., was enacted in 1991 to provide clear guidance to board members as to the standard of conduct they must follow.
The Legislature declared that board members and administrators must avoid conduct that is in violation of the public trust or that creates a justifiable impression among the public that such trust is being violated. N.J.S.A. 18A:12-22(a).
If there is a board member behaving in a manner you consider to be inappropriate, the first course of action would be to contact your field service representative at the New Jersey School Boards Association. All of the Association’s FSRs are former board members themselves, and they can share insights on navigating problematic behavior.
Depending on the behavior in question, your field service representative may urge you to strive to find some common ground with the board member. There are several suggestions on how to do this in the book The Governance Core by Davis W. Campbell and Michael Fullan, which includes a “Striving for Common Ground” section with six guidelines reflective of a leader trying to build board coherence. The guidelines, which you can read about in detail in the book, include suggestions such as reserve judgement, listen empathetically, stay focused on content instead of behavior or style, always be true to the norms of the board, do not take differences personally, and “if all else fails after many attempts to accommodate the views or behaviors of a given trustee, it is important for the board to move forward in fulfilling its governance responsibilities.”
Your FSR may recommend that the board president have a frank conversation with the board member whose behavior is cause for concern. The board president may pinpoint the behavior in question and say something like, “I am concerned that you could be brought up on ethics charges, and I do not want to see you go through that. It would reflect poorly on yourself as well as the board.” (A board could lose Quality Single Accountability Continuum points if a member is found to have violated the Board Member Code of Ethics.)
Depending on the circumstances of the concerning behavior, the board can also have the board attorney speak with the member in question.
NJSBA recommends that a board adopt its own “Code of Conduct” for board members. Ideally, this will help prevent a board member from behaving or acting inappropriately in the first place. However, even if it does not prevent an infraction, it can help the board remind one of its members what’s expected of them – and serve as a tool in explaining why what they did is wrong. There is also, of course, a statewide code of ethics for school board members. N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1.
Sometimes NJSBA is asked whether board members may file ethics charges against each other. Any person may file a complaint with the School Ethics Commission alleging that a school official has violated the School Ethics Act. A school official includes any board member, a member of a board of trustees, an administrator, or an employee or officer of the NJSBA, but it does not include any member of the secretarial, clerical or maintenance staff. Directions for filing a complaint with the SEC can be found here.
However, NJSBA counsels that filing ethics charges against a board member should be viewed as a last resort, as it is impossible to walk back from this action, and it will be difficult to build a productive relationship with a board member against whom other members have filed charges. It must be noted that the NJSBA spends a good deal of time training board members about the Board Member Code of Ethics, including insights embedded in its Governance I mandated training. That training now includes additional guidance on how board members can use social media, which has been a subject of concern for boards statewide.
Boards are also required to annually discuss ethics. They can also invite their NJSBA FSR to deliver an ethics presentation that reviews the Code of Ethics along with recent and relevant SEC decisions.