As school districts with April school elections prepare, and those with November school elections reflect upon their recent reorganization meetings, it is important that board members understand the potential impact of a long-standing but often unknown law mandating that boards of education elect officers at their annual organization meeting.

N.J.S.A. 18A:15-1 states:

“At its first regular meeting each board shall organize by electing one of its members as president and another as vice president, who shall serve for one year and until their respective successors are elected and shall qualify, but if the board shall fail to hold said meeting or to elect said officers, as prescribed by this law, the county superintendent shall appoint from among the members of board a president and vice president.”

As such, it is imperative that board members understand that if they cannot elect a president or vice-president at their reorganization meeting, it is not an option to put off the decision to another meeting.

In the event of a tie vote for either the presidential or vice presidential candidate, the board should take all actions necessary to break the tie or face losing the ability to elect its own leadership.

The general common law rule is that the vote necessary to elect is a majority of those present and voting, though there may be exceptions, such as when multiple candidates are in the running for an officer position and/or the board is seeking to elect multiple officer positions in one motion, in which case a plurality vote may be sufficient, depending on the district’s policies and procedures.

Regardless, a tie vote is treated as a failure to elect. If the board cannot break the tie and make a decision at the organization meeting, the executive county superintendent would then appoint the officers. While there is no magic number for the number of votes that define a “deadlock,” the board should continue to vote until it is confident that no movement will occur on the issue. Once the organization meeting is concluded, that decision-making moves to the executive county superintendent.

An adjournment of the organization meeting to a different date is problematic because reconvening the organization meeting may be viewed as holding an additional separate meeting and thereby failing to comply with the requirement that the officers be elected at organization. Boards are urged to consult their attorneys if an adjournment or recess needs to be taken.

Board Leader Election Considerations Effective July 2017, sending district representative members of the board were given the right to vote for president and vice president positions on the receiving district’s board. As such, their vote must be considered for leadership position vote totaling purposes, as per N.J.S.A. 18A:38-8.1.

There is no legally-mandated criteria or process for use by the executive county superintendent in choosing a board president or vice president. The executive county superintendent has discretion to use an appropriate process. Typically, the executive county superintendent will consult the local board and choose from among those members that want to be officers. They may or may not collect resumes or conduct interviews. Districts should consult their executive county superintendent for more specific details.

There is no statutory or regulatory requirement that a member be present at the organization meeting in order to be elected president or vice president. As such, the board is not prohibited from electing a non-present board member as president or vice president.

Election Policy A board should create, and consistently follow, policy procedures for the election of officers. If a board is deadlocked on a president, it may move to the election of the vice president and return later to the election of the president, or vice versa.

Some boards have policies that establish criteria for serving as president or vice president; for example, a one-year service requirement, or a requirement that officers serve on a rotating basis. Neither statute nor code addresses the validity of these criteria, and board counsel should be consulted prior to implementation of these or other conditions.

NJSBA’s Policy Department maintains a clearinghouse of sample policies.

Leadership Position Voting Process The education statutes are silent on the voting process to be used to elect the board officers. N.J.S.A. 10:4-14 requires that the public be able to ascertain how each board member voted and the minutes of the meeting must reflect such votes.

When taking a vote, two popular methods have emerged. In the first method, the board secretary will ask the individual board members to indicate their votes through a raising of hands or some other direct method. The second method requires each member to record his or her vote on a piece of paper with a signature and then give it to the board secretary who will read the names of each board member, and how that board member voted, into the record.

Board members may opt to use signed paper ballots in order to avoid members’ influencing each others’ votes.

Boards should have a policy addressing what occurs if there are multiple candidates for president or vice president. Each individual candidate may be voted on one at a time, in which case the majority vote controls. The board may wish to vote on all candidates for a particular office at the same time. In this latter instance, a plurality vote may be used to elect officers. A plurality occurs when a particular candidate may gather the greatest number of votes, but fails to obtain a majority. In this instance, it would be important to review board bylaws to determine the sufficiency of such a vote.

The statutes concerning the election of the president and the vice president are silent as to the vote needed to elect officers, so that the general common law rule applies to require only a majority vote of those present and voting. Case law also permits officers to be elected through a plurality vote, where more than two candidates are seeking one seat. In a 1975 decision, Martello v. Bd. of Education of Willingboro, the New Jersey Commissioner of Education determined that a candidate who received the most votes, but fewer than a majority, was entitled to be seated where three candidates ran for the office of vice president.

President and Vice President Discussions There is conflicting case law concerning whether board members may assert the personnel exception to the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) in order to discuss the individual merits of candidates for president and vice president in closed session. In a 1975 decision, MacKenzie v. Princeton Reg. Bd. of Ed., the court ruled that discussions regarding qualifications of a current board member for the office of president or vice president were an evaluation of a current public officer and could be discussed in closed session under the personnel exception.

In contrast, in Manahan v. Montville Twp. Bd. of Ed., from 1979, the court ruled that a private discussion of nominees for president and vice president violated the act. Though the court in Manahan reached its decision after considering MacKenzie, because both cases are at the trial court level, there is no binding precedent that comes out of these contradictory decisions that would provide guidance as to whether candidates’ qualifications may be permissibly discussed in closed session. Therefore boards are urged to consult with their board attorney before holding a closed session discussion of the qualification of officers.

In any case, it is clear that the election of such officers must take place in open session.
In conclusion, be sure to have your voting procedures in place prior to the election of board leaders, as board policy will control. Without such policies the decision of who will lead your board may no longer be in your control.

For more information on this topic please contact the NJSBA’s Department of Legal and Labor Relations at (609) 278-5254 and your local board attorney.

Kathleen Asher is counsel for NJSBA.