Board of education members are the ultimate school volunteers, spending hours each month attending meetings and trainings, and reviewing materials for board meetings. Many board members have found their way onto the local BOE through their interests in such volunteer activities as PTAs, student activity booster clubs or educational foundations.

So it may surprise some to know that once a person becomes a board member, there are times when school volunteer activities may become incompatible with board of education service.

In the past few years, the School Ethics Commission (SEC) has ruled several times on the issue, providing guidance to board members as to when their volunteer activities have crossed the line, and guidelines to follow in the future. This article examines these rulings to assist members who volunteer in the schools.

In August 2014, the SEC determined, in Advisory Opinion A32-14, that a board member, a retired former district employee, would violate multiple subsections of the Code of Ethics for School Board Members if he were to continue to serve as a volunteer in certain school-sponsored theatrical events. The board member assisted in casting, rehearsals, lighting for the fall play and spring musical, and served as an advisor for students for the school festival. The board member’s spouse was employed in the district as a teacher and theater advisor and was responsible for supervising, directing and managing the board member in his volunteer role. The board member was also subject to the supervision, management and direction of other board personnel, supervisors and administrators and was in regular contact with students, parents and staff, maintaining an active presence in the school. The SEC determined that this volunteer activity was inherently inconsistent with the board member’s executive role as an elected official, exceeded his scope of authority as a board member, involved day-to-day administration of the schools, and had the potential to compromise the board and the integrity of its decisions.

“Lead Volunteer” Inconsistent with Board Member’s Role In July 2015, in Advisory Opinion A10-15, the SEC determined that a board member would violate the Code of Ethics for School Board Members by serving as a “lead volunteer” of a club that regularly met in one of the schools in the district. As the lead volunteer, the board member had oversight and authority over students, gave awards based on performance, and had regular contact with school administration, other personnel, students, and parents. This level of engagement was inconsistent with the board member’s duty to develop the general rules and principles that would guide the management of the school district. The SEC determined that the executive function of a board member prohibited the board member from serving in a volunteer role within the district in which he directed students, school personnel, resources or funds and which occurred on a regular, frequent basis. According to the SEC, a volunteer activity such as this, in which a board member would be directed by school personnel or administration on a regular frequent basis, would also be inconsistent with the board member’s role.

The board member’s presence in the school as a volunteer leader of the club enmeshed him in the building and blurred the line between the role of board member and volunteer. The frequency of the volunteer activity, the level of interaction, and control of the club evidenced direct involvement in the day-to-day administration of the school district in violation of a provision of the code of ethics; i.e., not to administer the schools, but to ensure that they are well run. The board member’s role was more like an employee than a board member.

In issuing this opinion, the commission made it clear that it was not making a general prohibition against volunteering in activities within the school district. One-time, infrequent, non-executive volunteer activities are not inherently contradictory to board member duties.

For example, reading to a class during “Read Across America Day” or chaperoning a school trip in which the board member’s child is participating are not in conflict with the School Ethics Act – provided that the board member has cleared such activity with the superintendent and relevant staff who will be overseeing the activity as well as other staff who will be present. Board members must make it clear to all that their involvement in the activity is not as a board member, the commission noted.

Permitted Activities In Advisory Opinion A17-15, from October 2015, the SEC determined that a board member, who volunteered in two different roles in the school district, could continue to volunteer in those activities without violating the School Ethics Act.

The board member’s first volunteer role involved constructing sets and creating and repairing props for the high school musicals and plays. The activity involved being on stage during rehearsal five nights a week, two to three hours a night over a three-week period, with limited interaction with staff and students. The board member’s second volunteer role involved assisting the marching band, repairing equipment, loading and unloading equipment and instruments on the trucks, and moving equipment on and off the field during football games and competitions. The activities involved limited interaction with staff and students.

The SEC determined that these volunteering activities appeared to be passive as they did not involve a leadership role over a committee or group, or were not subject to a widespread level of direction from staff, students, other board members or a spouse. The instruction received from staff appeared to be limited to that necessary for the successful completion of the musical/play or marching band rehearsal/performance. The SEC determined that it did not view the intermittent, non-executive volunteer activities of constructing and maintaining props for musicals/plays or loading and unloading band equipment for the marching band as being inherently contradictory to a board members’ statutory duties.

Educational Foundation Volunteer In November 2015, in Advisory Opinion A24-15, the SEC determined that a board president could serve as a trustee on the Township Foundation for Educational Excellence in accordance with the foundation’s bylaws, which identified the president of the board as a trustee without violating the School Ethics Act.

The foundation consisted of approximately 20 trustees, from which an executive board was formed. The trustees included other education stakeholders in the township such as community members, retired and/or current district employees and local business owners. The mission of the foundation was to enhance the quality of education and educational opportunities and to generate and distribute financial and other resources for the benefit of the students of the district. The foundation was not directly affiliated with the board and was not overseen by the board.

The SEC determined that the foundation was wholly independent from the board member’s role as president of the board and from board oversight. The board member’s service as a trustee for the foundation was not incompatible with his role as board president and the requirements of the School Ethics Act. The foundation was an outside organization of the school district, incorporated as a self-governing entity, separate from the board and school district, and was not under the control or management of the board, despite their shared goals of furthering education in the school district.

In making its determination, the SEC likened the foundation to other organizations such as a local “Pop Warner” football or “Varsity” cheerleading camp, two well-known, private volunteer organizations. Those groups were deemed similar to the foundation in that the board member’s presence and involvement with those organizations could put him in the company of current district employees, which may include teachers, supervisors, principals, assistant superintendents, and the superintendent. As with the foundation, there is no prohibition on the board member’s involvement with a private organization that may have district employees, or the parents of students, likewise involved.

In rendering this advisory opinion, the SEC advised that while it viewed the volunteering, as described in the advisory opinion request, as not in violation of the Act; however, should an issue involving the foundation come before the board in any manner, the board member must recuse himself from participation or involvement and abstain from the vote.

Parent-Teacher Association Involvement More recently, in March 2018, the SEC issued public advisory opinion A15-18 in which it took up the issue of volunteering in the schools as it relates to a board member who is also president of the parent-teacher association.

At the outset, the SEC noted that serving on the board does not preclude a board member from also acting on behalf of his or her child. Therefore, and generally speaking, board members are able to volunteer for activities that support their children within the district without violating the Act .

The SEC reviewed its previous opinions on volunteerism in which the SEC observed that volunteerism that did not violate the Act generally turned on the degree of involvement a board member had with staff and students, as well as the degree to which the board member had authority to give and receive directions and orders to staff during the volunteer activity. In these previously issued public advisory opinions, the Commission advised that where the board member was in a supervisory position and generally oversaw staff or students, such interaction would be inconsistent with the Act .

In addition to being president of the PTA, the board member was a homeroom parent, a coordinator of other homeroom parents, involved with a school-based communication committee that meets with the principal, and coordinator of family movie nights and field days. In each of these roles, the SEC determined that the board member deferred to the principal and/or teaching staff as she helped support the activity for which she was volunteering. This passive form of volunteering, the SEC concluded, does not violate the School Ethics Act, unlike earlier opinions A32-14 and A10-15 in which the volunteers actively directed staff or students.

So what is a board member to do? What are the parameters for board member volunteerism as set forth by the School Ethics Commission? Here’s what we can take from these public advisory opinions to date:

  • There is no general ban on board members volunteering within the school district. The determination as to whether a volunteer activity is permissible is determined on a case-by-case basis.
  • Generally prohibited are volunteer activities in which the board member would be subject to the supervision, management and direction of other board personnel, supervisors and administrators, would be in regular contact with students, parents and staff, and would maintain an active day-to-day presence or be enmeshed in the school. These would include, but would not be limited to volunteer coaches, volunteer club advisors, volunteer cafeteria and playground aides, and other similar activities. If the board member’s volunteer activity looks like something that would generally be done by a school district employee, it is probably not permitted.
  • One-time, infrequent, non-executive in-district volunteer activities are not inherently contradictory to board member duties. For example, reading to a class during “Read Across America Day” or chaperoning a school trip in which the board member’s child is participating are not in conflict with the Act — provided that the board member has cleared such activity with the superintendent and relevant staff who will be overseeing the activity as well as other staff who will be present. Additionally, it would also appear that even where the activity may have some regularity, the key appears to be that it is a passive activity where the volunteer is in a supportive role, deferring to staff at all times, as with the activities in A15-18.
  • Board members must make it clear to all that their involvement in the activity is not as a board member.
  • Volunteer activities in outside organizations, which are self-governing and wholly independent of the board member’s role and board of education oversight, are generally permitted, notwithstanding the shared goals of furthering education and school district activities, which these organizations generally have. These activities could include, but not be limited to, education foundations, parent-teacher organizations, student activity booster clubs and local recreation organizations such as Pop Warner football, Little League, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.

In those circumstances where board member volunteer activities are permitted, board members are cautioned that, should an issue come before the board regarding the volunteer activity in which they are involved, the board member must recuse herself from participation or involvement in the issue and abstain from any vote.

As with any situation, a change in facts could lead to a different result. Should board members have questions about their volunteer activities in their districts, they should consult with their board attorney or they may seek an advisory opinion from the SEC regarding their prospective conduct by sending their request to the School Ethics Commission at the N.J. Department of Education, P.O. Box 500, Trenton, NJ 08625.

The letter should set forth the board they are a member of, the nature of the prospective conduct that the board member proposes to undertake and all relevant facts. The SEC will contact the school official making the request if it needs additional information.

John Burns is counsel in NJSBA’s governmental relations department.