On March 28, the School Ethics Commission (SEC) issued public advisory opinion A07-18, concerning cousins who work in the district. The advisory opinion responded to a board member whose cousin-in-law worked in the district and was a member of the union. Specifically, the question was whether the relationship created a “per se” conflict that prevented the board member from participating on the board’s negotiation and finance committees.
The SEC concluded that the fact that a cousin-in-law of a board member worked in the district was not an automatic bar for the board member’s participation on the negotiations and finance committees or for their participation in personnel discussions and determinations, provided that the board member never tried to secure any unwarranted privileges for the cousin-in-law. In other words, the board member can participate fully in all board decisions provided they never try to seek special treatment for the spouse’s cousin.
The SEC based its opinion on the fact that the spouse’s cousin is not defined as a family member under the statute or any other controlling authority. A cousin is considered an “other” under N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(b), under which a board of education member is prevented from extending any unwarranted privileges, advantages or employment to himself, members of his immediate family or others. Therefore, there is no presumption of a conflict because of the fact that the board member’s spouse’s cousin is employed by the board. The SEC also concluded that there is no presumption of a conflict even for a blood-related cousin.
The SEC said its opinion would be different if an individual who was defined as a family member was employed in the district.
Although there is no presumption of a conflict, the SEC reminded the board member that they must always be sure that their conduct conforms with their obligations under the School Ethics Act. To that end, the SEC offered hypothetical examples of conduct involving a cousin that would constitute an “unwarranted privilege,” thus violating the Act. For example, if:
- A position became available in the district to which the spouse’s cousin applied, but was not the most qualified candidate and/or was not recommended by the superintendent, and the board member used their position on the board to nonetheless secure the spouse’s cousin for that position where they were not the most qualified– that would be unwarranted;
- The spouse’s cousin came before the board for a disciplinary action which was justified and the board member convinced the board to not take action based on the member’s relationship with the cousin – that would be unwarranted;
- The cousin was a coach in the district and the board member, sought and/or obtained an additional stipend for coaches without cause, but not for other staff who served in a similar extracurricular capacity – that would be unwarranted.
Conversely, if the board member negotiated with the local union and ultimately agreed to raises for staff and the cousin thus benefited, it would not be unwarranted because all staff received an agreed upon, and thus warranted, benefit.
Board members may contact the NJSBA legal department for further information on this opinion or may contact their board attorney for specific advice regarding their situation.