Volunteerism is usually considered to be a good thing. In fact, many board of education members have found their way to the board through such volunteer activities as PTAs, student activity booster clubs or educational foundations.
Once one becomes a board member, however, there are times when the volunteer activity may become incompatible with board of education service. In the past few months, the School Ethics Commission (SEC) has ruled several times on the issue, providing guidance to board members as to when their volunteer activities have crossed the line, and guidelines to follow in the future.
Advisory Opinion A32-14
The SEC determined that a board member, a retired former district employee, would violate multiple subsections of the Code of Ethics for School Board Members if he were to continue to serve as a volunteer in certain school-sponsored theatrical events. The board member assisted in casting, rehearsals, lighting for the fall play and spring musical and served as an advisor for students for the school festival. The board member’s spouse was employed in the district as a teacher and theater advisor and was responsible for supervising, directing and managing the board member in his volunteer role. The board member would be subject to the supervision, management and direction of other board personnel, supervisors and administrators and would be in regular contact with students, parents and staff, maintaining an active presence in the school. The SEC determined that this volunteer activity would be inherently inconsistent with the board member’s executive role as an elected official, would exceed his scope of authority as a board member, would involve day-to-day administration of the schools, and would have the potential to compromise the board and the integrity of its decisions.
On May 18, 2015, NJSBA’s “Conversations on New Jersey Education” online radio show featured an interview with the acting executive director of the School Ethics Commission, and two long-time commission members. In response to a question regarding opinion A32-14 and volunteerism by board of education members, the SEC participants commented that the following factors would be considered in determining whether a board member’s volunteering would violate the School Ethics Act:
- Is it a one-day or a day-to-day activity?
- Does the board member have authority over school funds or school personnel?
- Do school district personnel have authority over the board member?
- Is the board member there as a guest?
- Does the board member have involvement in decision-making and direction of the activity?
These comments provided some clarity to the question of volunteering, but still left open a lot of questions.
Advisory Opinion A10-15
The SEC determined that a board member would violate the Code of Ethics for School Board Members by serving as a “lead volunteer” of a club that regularly met in one of the schools in the district. As the lead volunteer, the board member had oversight and authority over students, gave awards based on performance, and had regular contact with school administration, other personnel, students, and parents. This level of engagement was inconsistent with the board member’s duty to develop the general rules and principles that would guide the management of the school district. The SEC determined that the executive function of a board member prohibited the board member from serving in a volunteer role within the district in which he directed students, school personnel, resources or funds and which occurred on a regular, frequent basis. A volunteer activity such as this, in which a board member would be directed by school personnel or administration on a regular frequent basis, would also be inconsistent with the board member’s role.
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. 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; administering the schools, not simply ensuring that the schools were well run. The board member’s role was more like an employee than a board member.
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 the board member’s child is participating are not in conflict with the School Ethics 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.
Advisory Opinion A17-15
The SEC determined that a board member, who volunteered in two different roles in the school district, could continue to volunteer in those activities without violating the School Ethics Act.
The board member’s first volunteer role involved constructing sets for the high school musicals and plays. The activity involved being on stage during rehearsal five nights a week, two to three hours a night over a three-week period, with limited interaction with staff and students. The board member’s second volunteer role involved assisting the marching band, building props, repairing equipment, loading and unloading equipment and instruments on the trucks, and moving equipment on and off the field during football games and competitions and involved limited interaction with staff and students.
The SEC determined that these volunteering activities appeared to be passive as they did not involve a leadership role over a committee or group (A10-15) or subject to a widespread level of direction from staff, students, other board members or your spouse. (A32-14). The instruction received from staff appeared to be limited to that necessary for the successful completion of the musical/play or marching band rehearsal/performance. The SEC determined that it did not view the intermittent, non-executive volunteer activities of constructing and maintaining props for musicals/plays or unloading and uploading band equipment for the marching band as being inherently contradictory to a board members’ statutory duties.
Advisory Opinion A24-15
The SEC determined that a board president could serve as a trustee on the Township Foundation for Educational Excellence in accordance with the foundation’s bylaws, which identified the president of the board as a trustee without violating the School Ethics Act.
The foundation consisted of approximately 20 trustees, from which an executive board was formed. The trustees included other education stakeholders in the township such as community members, retired and/or current district employees and local business owners. The mission of the foundation was to enhance the quality of education and educational opportunities and to generate and distribute financial and other resources for the benefit of the students of the district. The foundation was not directly affiliated with the board and was not overseen by the board.
The SEC determined that the foundation was wholly independent from the board member’s role as president of the board and from board oversight. The board member’s service as a trustee for the foundation was not incompatible with his role as board president and the requirements of the School Ethics Act. The foundation was an outside organization of the school district, incorporated as a self-governing entity, separate from the board and school district, and was not under the control or management of the board, despite their shared goals of furthering education in the school district.
In making its determination, the SEC likened the foundation to other organizations such as a local “Pop Warner” football or “Varsity” cheerleading camp, two well-known, private organizations. Those groups were deemed similar to the foundation in that the board member’s presence and involvement with those organizations could put him in the company of current district employees, which may include teachers, supervisors, principals, assistant superintendents and the superintendent. As with the foundation, there is no prohibition on the board member’s involvement with a private organization which may have district employees, or the parents of students, likewise involved.
In rendering this advisory opinion, the SEC advised that while it viewed the volunteering, as described in the advisory opinion request, as not in violation of the act; however, should an issue involving the foundation come before the board in any manner, the board member must recuse himself from participation or involvement and abstain from the vote.
So what is a board member to do? What are the parameters for board member volunteerism as set forth by the School Ethics Commission? Here’s what we can take from the public advisory opinions to date:
There is no general ban on board members volunteering in activities within the school district. The determination as to whether a volunteer activity is permissible is determined on a case-by-case basis.
Volunteer activities in which the board member would be subject to the supervision, management and direction of other board personnel, supervisors and administrators; would be in regular contact with students, parents and staff; and would maintain an active day-to-day presence or be enmeshed in the school are generally prohibited. These would include, but would not be limited to volunteer coaches, volunteer club advisors, volunteer cafeteria and playground aides and other similar activities. If the board member’s volunteer activity looks like something that would generally be done by a school district employee, it is probably not permitted.
One-time, infrequent, non-executive in-district 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 the board member’s 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.
Volunteer activities in outside organizations, which are self-governing and wholly independent of the board member’s role and board of education oversight, are generally permitted, notwithstanding the shared goals of furthering education and school district activities, which these organizations generally have. These activities could include, but not be limited to, education foundations, parent-teacher organizations, student activity booster clubs and local recreation organizations such as Pop Warner football, Little League, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.
In those circumstances where board member volunteer activities are permitted, board members are cautioned that, should an issue come before the board regarding the volunteer activity, the board member must recuse herself from participation or involvement and abstain from any vote.
As with any situation, a change in facts could lead to a different result. Board members should seek the advice of their board attorney before volunteering in school district and community activities.