Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, New Jersey’s acting commissioner of education, issued a decision Sept. 30 in complaint #208-21 agreeing with the School Ethics Commission’s finding of a violation of the Code of Ethics concerning the improper manner in which a board member issued an endorsement of other board members on social media. The commissioner, however, disagreed with the SEC’s recommended penalty of censure, instead imposing the penalty of reprimand.

The board member who was the subject of the complaint issued an endorsement for four of his fellow board members. However, in issuing the endorsement, the board member also disparaged a fifth board member and used language such as “we” and “our” and referred to board matters throughout his endorsement, giving the impression that it was the board’s opinion and not that of the individual board member. The commissioner observed that “the Op-Ed created the appearance that the entire Board endorsed certain candidates and opposed others, appellant’s actions conferred an unwarranted advantage upon the candidates he endorsed” in violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(b).

Additionally, appellant’s actions were outside the scope of his duties as a board member, and they had the potential to compromise the board, in violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(e); the commissioner agreed with the SEC that the disclaimer was insufficient.

The commissioner said, “The purpose of a disclaimer is to prevent board members from compromising the board of education by causing reasonable confusion among the public about whether the board member’s statement is made as a private citizen or as a public official. Here, while appellant’s disclaimer noted that his views were his own, he failed to make clear that the views expressed were not those of the Board. The Commissioner disagrees with appellant that such language would be superfluous.”

In reaching its decision on the violation, the SEC said that an ethically compliant disclaimer should contain “the following statements are made in my capacity as a private citizen, and not in my capacity as a board member. These statements are also not representative of the board or its individual members, and solely represent my own personal opinions.”

While agreeing with the SEC as to the violations, the commissioner disagreed with the SEC on the imposition of a  censure penalty. The SEC argued that censure was the appropriate penalty because it was the penalty given in previous cases concerning endorsements that did not follow the requirements of the SEC. The commissioner disagreed that censure was the appropriate penalty in this case because the violation was inadvertent as the board member believed his disclaimer to be sufficient. In the cases cited by the SEC, the commissioner observed that the disclaimer was nonexistent and the violations were intentional. In this case, the commissioner noted that because there was an attempt to use the proper disclaimer, unlike the previous cases cited by the SEC, reprimand and not censure was the appropriate remedy.

The text of the acting commissioner’s decision can be found here.

The NJSBA urges all board members to make sure that their conduct complies with the requirements of the School Ethics Act at all times. For further information on this case or other ethics matters, contact your board attorney or the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations unit at 609-278-5279.