When assembling and approving the annual budget, school board members are sometimes startled to realize that expenditures on personnel comprise about 75 percent of the district budget. No wonder school board members are highly interested in personnel. Add to that the research that shows that effective teachers are key to student achievement; the roll-out of the new and complex state regulations on teacher and administrator evaluations; and recent discussions and regulations about merit pay, and the need for school districts to focus on human resources has never seemed greater.
Many school boards have a personnel committee. This committee is typically separate from the negotiations committee, which only operates intermittently, when a contract is being negotiated. Sometimes the personnel committee is combined with the policy committee, or with the finance or curriculum committees. But in most districts, personnel (also known as human resources) stands alone.
The personnel committee typically consists of two or three board of education members, the district’s human resources, and perhaps an assistant superintendent. The superintendent often attends these meetings and is an ex-officio member of the committee. Other staff members may be invited to the committee meetings when specific topics are on the agenda.
Personnel committee meetings are typically held once or twice each month, as needed, to discuss work force matters such as appointments, leaves, current postings, re-hire lists, negotiations updates, staff issues and grievances, future staffing, potential non-renewals, and more. If the agenda for the next board meeting is known, the committee will review all personnel-related items on the upcoming agenda. In some districts, if an item is not voted out of the personnel committee, it will not appear in the personnel portion of the full board’s agenda.
New positions, employee discipline, job descriptions, changes in organizational chart, non-renewals, re-hire lists are only a few of the items that may be included on the board’s agenda under “personnel.”
Conflicts of Interest
Conflicts of interest can preclude board members from serving on the personnel committee. The Code of Ethics states, “I will refuse to surrender my independent judgment to special interest or partisan political groups or to use the schools for personal gain or for the gain of friends.” The School Ethics Act [l. 1991, c. 393, codified at N.J.S.A. 18A:12-21 et seq.) is the statutory source for many ethical requirements and restrictions on school board members.
The policy on conflict of interest requires that “no board member shall have an interest, nor shall his/her immediate family have an interest, in a business organization or engage in any business, transaction, or professional activity, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest.”
Also, “no board member shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he/she, a member of his/her immediate family, or a business organization in which he/she has an interest, has a direct or indirect financial involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his/her objectivity or independence of judgment. No school official shall act in his/her official capacity in any matter where he/she or a member of his/her immediate family has a personal involvement that is or creates some benefit to the school official or member of his/her immediate family.”
Serving on a personnel committee would be likely to create a conflict for a board member with relatives working in the district. Consult your board attorney for guidance on specific situations.
In addition, if a board member isn’t sure if there is a conflict of interest that would prohibit serving on the personnel committee, one possible recourse is to seek an advisory opinion from the School Ethics Commission.
Confidentiality is a requirement for personnel committee members, and is specifically mentioned in the Code of Ethics. The possibility of encountering confidential information about staff or students is great. If a board member has shown an inability to maintain confidentiality about items in executive session, that member is not suitable for appointment to this committee.
Almost all personnel matters involving district employees, including performance evaluations, are confidential. Matters involving individual students, including disciplinary measures, also must be kept quiet. Both students and employees have individual rights to privacy that must be respected. Matters involving labor negotiations, anticipated and pending litigation, and any purchase of land or property should not be disclosed to outsiders. Tell your cat or dog, but you can’t divulge confidential information to anyone, including your spouse or best friend, regardless of whether they promise to keep a secret.
Failure to maintain confidentiality is a violation of the School Ethics Act. If someone brings charges against you with the School Ethics Commission, you could be publicly reprimanded, censured, suspended, or even removed from your board.
New board members are often surprised to learn that the board can only hire staff upon the recommendation of the superintendent/chief school administrator. The pivotal role of the superintendent in hiring has meant that many boards want oversight and transparency, and therefore want to have some participation in interviews. This has been a thorny issue, and sometimes can lead to charges of the dreaded “M” word -micromanaging. It is not uncommon for board members to participate in interviews for high-level positions such as the assistant superintendent of schools or school business administrator. Some boards have allowed a board member (or two) to sit in and observe interviews for other key positions – but not to run the interview or actively partake in the questioning of job candidates. NJSBA can provide more information on this topic if your board wants to have the personnel committee members, or other board members, to observe interviews.
Some boards demand full disclosure by the superintendent of previous knowledge of persons being recommended for hiring, to discourage hiring of cronies, past roommates, etc. “Full disclosure” and “transparency” are watchwords in many areas of school operations.
Policy committee members will need to plunge into the district’s policy manual to be familiar with state laws and regulations plus the established practices of the local district. A few examples of the relevant policies are confidentiality of personnel records (file code number 4112.6), affirmative action/equal educational opportunity (file code number 2224), organization chart (file code number 2121) and staff absenteeism (file code number 4151). Policy committee members should also be familiar with the contents of the negotiated contracts.
Committees are most effective when the members clearly know their duties. Does your district or charter school have a “job description” that sets forth the board’s committees? A sample list of duties is in the box on page 38, on a form to report on committee activities. NJSBA can provide an electronic version of this condensed document; for information contact David Bosted at the email address below.