Recently, the School Ethics Commission issued two public advisory opinions regarding board of education member conduct.
Lead Volunteer In Advisory Opinion A10-15, made public at the SEC’s July 28 meeting, the commission advised that a board member would violate the Code of Ethics for School Board Members by serving as a “lead volunteer” of a club that meets in a school in the board’s school district.
“As the lead volunteer of the Club, you oversee and have authority over students in the Club, give awards to certain students based on performance, and have regular contact with school administration, other personnel and students, and possibly parents,” the commission advised. “This level of engagement is inconsistent with your duty as a Board member to develop the general rule and principles that guide the management of the District. The engagement represents your overreach into the District to manage and oversee an aspect of the school, the Club.”
According to the commission, the executive function of a board member prohibits him or her from serving in a volunteer role within the district in which the individual directs students, school personnel, resources, or funds and which occurs on a regular, frequent basis. Such action is beyond the scope of a board member’s duties, the commission stated. “Similarly, a volunteer activity in which a board member is directed by school personnel or administration on a regular frequent basis is also inconsistent with one’s role as a board member.”
The commission indicated that by serving as the lead volunteer of the club, a board member would violate the following provisions of the Code of Ethics, contained in the New Jersey School Ethics Act:
- Confine board action to policy-making, planning and appraisal (N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(c)). Engaging as a regular volunteer would be inconsistent with the board member’s duties to develop the general rules and principles that guide the management of the school district. By overseeing and having authority over students in the club, giving awards to certain students based on performance and having regular contact with school administration, other personnel and students and possibly parents, the board member would overreach and violate this provision.
- Board member responsibility is not to administer the schools but, together with fellow board members, to ensure that schools are well run (N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1 (d)). The board member’s presence in the school as a volunteer leader of the club enmeshed him in the building and blurred the line between the role of board member and volunteer in the building. The frequency of the volunteer activity, the level of interaction, and control of the club evidenced direct involvement in the day-to-day administration of the school district in violation of the Code of Ethics.
- Make no personal promises nor take any private action that may compromise the board (N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e)). The board member’s volunteering as the leader of the club, which is a regular, on-going activity involving contact with students, personnel and administrators, including the supervision of school administrators, created the potential to compromise the board in violation of this provision.
No General Ban on Volunteering
In issuing this opinion, the commission made it clear that it was not making a general prohibition against volunteering in activities within the school district. One-time, infrequent, non-executive volunteer activities are not inherently contradictory to board member duties. For example, reading to a class during “Read Across America Day” or chaperoning a school trip in which his or her child is participating are not in conflict with the Act—provided that the board member has cleared such activity with the superintendent and relevant staff who will be overseeing the activity as well as other staff who will be present.
Board members must make it clear to all that their involvement in the activity is not as a board member, the commission noted.
Involvement in Negotiations
In Advisory Opinion A09-15, also made public on July 28, the commission advised that a board member whose niece was employed as a cheerleading advisor and who was recently hired as a teacher, would violate the School Ethics Act if she were to be involved in or be present for the board’s negotiations or other matters with the local teachers’ union. To avoid a violation of the Act, the commission said the board member must recuse herself from matters touching upon negotiations and all other matters between the board and the local education association.
The board member’s niece is considered an “other” relative in the law. As such, the public may view the board member’s prospective participation in any discussion, negotiations or vote involving the local education association contract as an attempt to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages in violation of the public trust.
Board members are encouraged to discuss the ramifications of these opinions at their local board level and consult with their board attorney for advice as to how to proceed.
A school official may request an advisory opinion about his or her prospective conduct, or that of another school official. Published advisory opinions may be relied upon by the requesting school official and other school board members, administrators and charter school trustees in conducting themselves in office.
For information about the New Jersey School Ethics Act and School Ethics Commission, see “Frequently Asked Questions About the New Jersey School Ethics Act” at http://staging.njsba.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/njsec-faq.pdf.