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.

Last week’s article focused on the items that the SEC acted on.

This article is limited to a discussion of those matters dismissed by the SEC.

Matters Dismissed

In C39-20, the complainants alleged that the respondent “must” have shared confidential information with her spouse because he requested specific documents from the district through an Open Public Records Act, and he could not have known the documents existed unless his spouse, a board member, told him about them. The respondent denied that she breached her ethical obligations, denied that she disclosed confidential information to her spouse, and maintained that the basis for her spouse’s OPRA request was the contents of a “packet” that one of the named complainants delivered to her home. Although addressed to the respondent, the respondent’s spouse admitted that he opened the packet because it did not contain “any indicia of her membership on the [b]oard.”

The SEC adopted the administrative law judge’s initial decision dismissing the matter because the complainants failed to provide sufficient facts to support their claims, and instead only offered “speculation” as to how the respondent’s spouse may have learned the information.

In C94-21, the complainant contended that the respondent violated the code of ethics for school board members  when (1) she substituted herself for the board vice president to assist with the awarding of diplomas at graduation, and did so without the board president’s permission (and also made a change to the graduation program and ceremony without following the chain of command), and when (2) she improperly used her position on the board to have a book removed from the district’s suggested reading list.

The SEC adopted the administrative law judge’s initial decision dismissing the matter because the complainant did not demonstrate that the respondent was the cause of the change(s) to the graduation ceremony and/or program. In addition, although the respondent did express concerns about a book on the district’s suggested reading list, she did so only after the director of curriculum directly solicited “questions and comments” from every member of the board.

In C31-22, the complainant alleged that the board president and vice president violated the code when, in response to a letter to the editor submitted by a different board member, they published a letter to the editor titled, “The Board of Education believes that transparency starts with accurate facts,” and did so without the prior review and consent of the board. The complainant additionally suggested the respondents’ letter was “motivated by a political agenda” as they were up for reelection.

The SEC adopted the administrative law judge’s initial decision dismissing the complaint because, among other things, the respondents did not take action unrelated to their duties as board members, as the publication related to the detailed process of approving a budget. Moreover, contrary to the complainant’s allegation, the board was aware of the letter and a majority of its members provided consent to its publication; and the complainant did not sufficiently demonstrate that the respondents published the letter to the editor as a means of campaigning.

In C48-22, the complainant contended that the board president and vice president violated the code when they formed an ad hoc committee to select and interview new legal counsel. As part of the ad hoc committee, the superintendent and business administrator assisted with preparing the request for proposal, formulating questions, and interviewing law firms. After the ad hoc committee interviewed two of the six law firms that responded to the RFP, the full board interviewed the law firm, deliberated, and voted. The complainant contended that the respondents’ actions in selecting the law firm were unethical.

The SEC adopted the administrative law judge’s initial decision dismissing the matter because the complainant failed to present sufficient factual evidence and support for her claims. More specifically, the administrative law judge determined, and the SEC agreed, that the respondents’ actions were within the scope of, and were related to, their duties and responsibilities; they did not involve themselves in the activities or functions of the administration; and their actions did not result in their receipt of any personal gain. Of note, although the complainant believed that the respondents “should have cared about the background of a prior professional services contract” with the law firm that was ultimately selected, the administrative law judge noted that the complainant’s gripe was “more in the nature of a political question” or political complaint.

SEC’s Next Meeting

The SEC’s next regularly scheduled meeting is Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. Following this meeting, we will learn the SEC’s determination with regard to the three initial decisions and the seven ethics complaints that were reviewed Oct. 17, 2023.

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.