On Oct. 17, 2023, the School Ethics Commission took action at its regularly scheduled monthly meeting as follows: reviewed three initial decisions; reviewed three ethics complaints pursuant to the SEC’s previous regulations; reviewed four ethics complaints pursuant to the SEC’s new/amended regulations; adopted five decisions in connection with previously reviewed matters; adopted decisions for those returning school officials who neglected to file their 2023 Personal/Relative and Financial Disclosure Statements by April 30, 2023; and considered a new advisory opinion request. Importantly, the SEC did not adopt any new advisory opinions, or make any advisory opinions public. This article is limited to a discussion of those matters in which a violation of the School Ethics Act was found.

  1. Violation Found

In C98-21, the complainant argued that the named respondent violated the code when he copied the substance of at least two different internal board email communications, and sent the information to external stakeholders, namely township officials. The administrative law judge dismissed the complaint based on the determination that the information shared by the respondent with township officials was already “public and not deliberat[ive],” and because the complainant did not demonstrate how the respondent’s actions jeopardized or compromised the board.

Although the SEC agreed that the complainant did not establish a violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(c), it rejected the conclusion that the respondent did not violate N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e) or N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(g) because, in its review, certain information sent by the respondent was not yet public and/or had not been formally approved by the board. Consequently, and because he revealed the “inner communications” of the board at a time when certain information was not publicized and formal board action had not been taken, the SEC found that the respondent took action beyond the scope of his duties that had the potential to compromise the board, and that he disclosed confidential information. Recognizing that “[c]opying and pasting directly from the Board email and sending its non-public contents to public officials is not a de minimis action,” but because the disclosure related to a “one-time event,” the SEC recommended a penalty of reprimand.

  1. 2023 Disclosure Statements

The SEC also adopted six decisions for those few returning school officials who, in violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-25, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-26, and N.J.A.C. 6A:28-3.1, failed to file their 2023 Disclosure Statements by April 30, 2023. In three of the adopted decisions, D02-23, D03-23, and D07-23, the SEC recommended a penalty of censure; in another decision, D06-23, the SEC recommended suspension for 60 days; and in the remaining two adopted decisions, D05-23 and D08-23, the SEC recommended removal.

Amendments to the SEC’s regulations became effective March 6, 2023, and enhanced penalties are now authorized for delinquent filings and/or for those school officials who previously violated the provisions of the School Ethics Act. The SEC’s recommended penalties in D02-23, D03-23, D05-23, D06-23, D07-23, and D08-23 are consistent with the amendments set forth in N.J.A.C. 6A:28-3.3(c)-(e) and N.J.A.C. 6A:28-9.11.

As of the date of this writing, it is unknown whether exceptions to the penalties recommended by the SEC, appeals of the SEC’s findings, or both have been filed in connection with C98-21, D02-23, D03-23, D05-23, D06-23, D07-23, and/or D08-23. Regardless of whether exceptions and/or appeals are filed, the commissioner of education will affirm, modify, or reject the SEC’s decisions within the time period prescribed by law.

Stay tuned for a subsequent article in next week’s School Board Notes, which will review the matters the SEC dismissed at its Oct. 17, 2023, 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.