In a recently issued public advisory opinion that has significant implications for board members, the School Ethics Commission advised that a board member, whose sister-in-law was an NJEA member in another school district, could not participate in the negotiation of the collective bargaining agreement with the local education association. In the opinion, A03-15, the board member was advised to recuse himself from any matters touching upon the negotiations between the board of education and the local education association.

The commission based its decision on the application of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24 (b), which states, “No school official shall use or attempt to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges, advantages or employment for himself, members of his immediate family or others.”

The board member’s “sister-in-law” was considered by the commission to be an “other” within the meaning of this subsection. As such, the board member’s familial relationship with the sister-in-law would violate N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24 (b). The public could view the board member’s action in participating in the negotiation of the collective bargaining agreement with the local education association as an attempt to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages in violation of the public trust.

Significant Implications In reaching this opinion, the commission expanded the scope of conflicted board members in out-of-district, similar-statewide-union conflicts beyond the immediate family member definition of spouse, child, parent and sibling living in the household to include other familial relationships as well. In other conflict contexts, the commission has found “others” to include in-laws, cousins, stepdaughters, stepdaughters-in-laws, nephews and cohabitating partners. A03-15 would likely extend to these family relationships as well.

The opinion also expanded the scope of conflicted board members in out-of-district similar statewide union conflicts beyond the board member’s household to other households as well. A03-15 would appear to apply to any family member in any school district who has a similar statewide union affiliation. Boards of education may find that this opinion prompts more frequent use of the Doctrine of Necessity.

A03-15 did not specifically address the issue of voting on the collective bargaining agreement.

Board members are encouraged to discuss the ramifications of this decision at their local board level and consult with their board attorney for advice as to how to proceed.