Every local board of education will — at some point — experience an empty seat, when a board member has come to the conclusion, for one reason or another, that he or she needs to resign mid-term.
The mood of a board of education resulting from a turn of events like this can be wide-ranging, but regardless of the reaction, the board has work to do. It may seem like a daunting prospect to find and appoint a successor, but it doesn’t have to be. NJSBA’s Field Services Department regularly assists local boards with best practices for filling vacancies. NJSBA can also help your board determine if there are any measures you can take to keep vacancies from happening in the first place.

When someone resigns from the board, the public must be made aware. The departing member may announce his resignation at the board table, or the board president may need to make the announcement, if the member’s resignation became effective between board meetings. The remaining members of the board of education may formally vote to accept the resignation, but they don’t have to: no one can be forced to finish his or her term of office. As long as the resignation has been clearly communicated to and received by the board of education, the resignation is effective, as the court found in Silberstein v. Lakewood Bd. of Ed. in 1990.

The vacancy being in effect, the board should consult its bylaws on how to fill it. New Jersey statute N.J.S.A. 18A:12-15 states the legal processes for filling vacancies. Most commonly, the board has the ability to appoint to fill a “run-of-the-mill” vacancy. Your bylaws will give you the basic, minimal procedure you must follow. When deciding exactly what steps your board will take going forward, keep in mind that although the board of education, and not the community, will be selecting the replacement, the person whom you appoint will have the same rights, roles, and responsibilities as any other board member who was put into office by the voters in your municipality. Thus it stands to reason that the search for a successor should be as wide-ranging as possible.

First, a notice of the opening on the school board should be prepared for public dissemination. The notice should state the legal requirements for being a school board member, the length of the term, how to apply if interested, and how the board will make the appointment, e.g. the date of the board meeting at which candidates will be interviewed. It is not required that the district spend money on an advertisement in the newspaper or elsewhere, but you do want news of this opportunity to reach all sectors of your community.

Featuring the notice on your district website is a given — consider also social media (district Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.), school newsletters and backpacks, a press release for your local newspaper and hyper-local online news sites, and manually tacking up paper postings at the library, post office, senior center — even supermarkets! Don’t target only one group, like the PTO or HSA, for interested applicants. It’s akin to surfcasting: if you’re aiming for a trophy bass, you should bring as many rods and sand spikes to the beach as you can!

Most boards use the interview process to determine which candidate will be the successful one. You may, and you should, choose your new board member carefully. The board is not required to choose from among the people who apply on the first round — even if there is only one–but there is a 65-day time limit to fill the vacancy. After that, the executive county superintendent will appoint, which may not be ideal for your local community.

The Candidate Interview Your field service representative has excellent sample interview questions for you to use. “Why do you want to serve on the school board?” “Do you understand the time commitment required?” “What perspectives will you bring to the table?” or some versions of the above, should certainly be asked. Open-ended questions can be particularly valuable, such as, “Tell us a little about yourself, and why you want to serve on the board.” These prompt the candidates to do most of the talking, not the board members. The more the candidate reveals, the easier it will be for the board to determine if that candidate is a good fit. It’s important that interviews are fair and consistent: the same questions should be asked of every candidate, and “gotcha” questions should be avoided.

Typically, the interviews are conducted in open session. This makes sense, considering that school board elections preserve the right of the public to choose their representatives on the board; however unfortunately, the official they have chosen can no longer serve, so the remaining board members are therefore acting in the electorate’s stead. For this reason, the board should also consider allowing for public comment between the interviews and the board’s ultimate vote on the appointment. Check your bylaws for the procedure your board should follow.

Deliberations among the board regarding the candidates are generally held in closed session, but, again, check your bylaws. You may (hopefully, you will) come to consensus on whom to choose, but you cannot vote on the appointment in closed session. Re-enter public session and after the meeting presider thanks all applicants for their interest, one person should make a motion to appoint (name of candidate); the motion is seconded; opportunity for discussion follows (which likely will not happen, since discussion already took place in exec session); and there is a roll-call vote. If the board will not be appointing from the pool of candidates, the meeting presider should state that from the dais, outlining the next steps that the board agreed to in closed session when a decision could not be made.

After you have selected a happy (for now, anyway) candidate to be a board member, he or she must first complete a criminal background check within 30 days of appointment before she can serve on the board. Meanwhile, you should be onboarding your newest member with an in-district orientation, and informing the member about the resources he or she will need. Guide your newest member to the NJSBA website, and encourage him or her to attend the professional development programs NJSBA offers. Inform her about the mandatory training requirements, and the roles and responsibilities of being a school board member. If your district doesn’t have an in-district board member orientation program, your field service rep can help you to create one which you can use in this situation, and whenever a new member joins the board.

Although it will likely be a positive experience when a new member enters the board this way, you should examine your board’s practices to see why the vacancy occurred in the first place, especially if you have faced a rash of resignations within a relatively short time. Is your board functioning as a team? Are your meetings too long? Too contentious? Are there too many committee meetings? Do board members act with respect towards one another, even when they don’t agree? Is there any bullying among members going on? Was an important decision the board had to make handled improperly? Do the community and staff respect the board? Are members engaged in their service, or just “phoning it in”? Are the members of the board confident that they are advancing student success, or is the board mostly vague on the vision and direction of the district? Although these can be tough questions to ask, honest, introspective answers will reveal areas in which the board can grow together and return to stability and functionality. A board retreat is a good time in which to have these difficult but ultimately productive conversations. Your field service rep can help you plan and facilitate a successful retreat for your BOE.

Stability in school districts is important. The seven New Jersey public school districts which were recognized by the NJDOE as Lighthouse Districts in 2017 explored their commonalities, and they all identified collaboration and stability among the board of education, administration, and staff as a contributing factor to their success. Much research has been conducted about the relationship of job satisfaction to job stability, and although New Jersey school board members are not paid for their service, the happiest and most effective among us often are also the most stable among us. Prioritizing authentic satisfaction among your fellow board members, and the stability that results, will ensure that the good work you’ve done in recruiting and appointing your newest board member will reap great benefits not just for that person, but for the entire board, your administration, and ultimately, the children you serve. That’s an opportunity for everybody—make the most of it!

Kathleen Helewa is the NJSBA field service representative for Passaic, Sussex, and Warren Counties.

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