The agenda for the School Ethics Commission’s meeting on Sept. 26, 2023, included the following items of note: the review of five initial decisions; the adoption and issuance of orders to show cause for those school officials who failed to file their 2023 Personal/Relative and Financial Disclosure Statements by April 30, 2023; the adoption of three decisions; continued consideration of removing Advisory Opinion A01-01 from the SEC’s website; and the adoption of resolutions in connection with previously issued penalty cases.
Similar to the August meeting, the agenda for the SEC’s September meeting did not include the review of any ethics complaints pursuant to the SEC’s new regulations, did not include the consideration of any new advisory opinion requests and did not include the adoption of any new advisory opinions. As for the three decisions adopted:
First, in C22-23, the complainant suggested that because the named respondent’s spouse financed her (the respondent’s) campaign for the board, he expected her to vote in favor of, and to support, his position on board issues. More specifically, and in Counts 1-3, the complainant alleged that the respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(h), N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(f) and N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(j) respectively because she was the sole dissenting vote on the superintendent’s recommendation for a staff member’s promotion, and her spouse vocally opposed the promotion. In Count 4, the complainant suggested that the respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(h) when she voted “no” on the referendum but had previously voted in favor of it. Per the complainant, the respondent’s spouse was strongly opposed to the referendum and publicly voiced his opposition. In Count 5, the complainant argued that the respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e) because, in trying to defend her vote on certain board matters, the respondent made “false and inaccurate statements” to try and “shed a bad light” on the board and the administration.
In dismissing all the counts of the complaint, the SEC stated, in relevant part, it “is within Respondent’s role as a [b]oard member to vote for or against personnel actions based on her personal opinion”; even if the respondent’s vote “matched” her spouse’s opinion, board members “are undoubtedly free to vote on any and all agenda items in the way that they feel is best for the [d]istrict, its staff, and its students”; and the respondent’s public statements “mentioning the division on the [b]oard, social media attacks, and ethics complaints, were her opinions, expressed publicly and within her role as a [b]oard member at a [b]oard meeting, which does not compromise the [b]oard.”
Second, in C86-21, an administrative law judge concluded, following a hearing, that the named respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(d) and N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e) (in Count 1) when, following a conversation with the local education association president, she sent an email that was critical of the superintendent and a recent decision she had made to the board, to the superintendent and to the superintendent’s assistant. The respondent sent this email after the local education association president asked her to speak with the superintendent about her (the local education association president’s) concerns. The administrative law judge additionally concluded that the named respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(c), N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(d), N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e), N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(i), and N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(j) (in Count 2) when she directly contacted the high school band and chorus teachers to request that the marching band and choir perform at an event for an organization for which she served as secretary.
Based on the legal conclusions set forth in the initial decision, and the fact that the named respondent violated multiple provisions of the Code of Ethics for School Board Members, the administrative law judge recommended a penalty of censure. Of note, the range of penalties was limited because the named respondent was no longer a member of the board.
In its review, the SEC adopted the legal conclusion that the respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e) but rejected the legal conclusion that the respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(d) (Count 1). According to the SEC, “Respondent’s email neither gave a direct order to the Superintendent, nor was it an attempt to become directly involved in the day-to-day administration of the [d]istrict.” Instead, the email was consistent with her duties as a board member to refer complaints to the chief school administrator.
In addition, the SEC adopted the legal conclusion that the respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(d), N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e), N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(i), and N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(j) but rejected the legal conclusion that the respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(c) (Count 2). Per the SEC, “Respondent’s action in contacting the band and chorus teachers to request that they participate at an event … does not constitute official action to effectuate policies and plans.” Although the SEC rejected certain legal conclusions rendered by the administrative law judgment, it adopted the recommended penalty of censure for the named respondent’s “blatant disregard of the chain of command.” The SEC also emphasized that, “[a]s a seasoned Board member who had undergone years of ethics training, Respondent should have been well aware of her ethical obligations.”
Finally, in C59-20, an administrative law judge concluded, following a hearing, that the allegations against two of the three named respondents should be dismissed because of insufficient factual evidence. As for the remaining named respondent, the administrative law judge concluded that she violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e) and N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(f) when, from her official board email account, she sent an email to a personal contact at a political entity/organization about an event that was wholly unrelated to the board and/or the district, but she helped to organize and facilitate. According to the administrative law judge, the email message was “politically motivated to assist an organized group,” and the complainant demonstrated that she “took action on behalf of … a special-interest group or persons organized and voluntarily united in opinion when she planned and promoted the rally and used her official [board] email in order to accomplish her goals that were outside her [board] duties.” Consequently, the administrative law judge recommended a penalty of reprimand.
Based on its review of the record, the SEC adopted the legal conclusion that the remaining named respondent violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e) and N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(f), and agreed that the appropriate penalty, given that it was a first offense, was reprimand.
Board members 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.