In December 1975, the New Jersey School Boards Association’s Delegate Assembly passed a resolution that endorsed a Code of Ethics for School Board Members. This was in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and there was a renewed focus throughout the country on good, transparent and ethical governance.
School boards across the state began adopting and living by the code. In 1991, NJSBA supported the original School Ethics Act, and in 2001, the Association successfully advocated for the incorporation of the NJSBA Code of Ethics into the New Jersey School Ethics Act.
I tell you about this because I think it’s important to remember that NJSBA has long been in the forefront of promoting good governance on boards.
Lately, I have been hearing from local board members who are concerned about recent advisory opinions of the School Ethics Commission (SEC). This year, the SEC has released dozens of opinions that address board member conduct. This issue of School Leader has an extensive article on these Advisory Opinions, which begins on page 15.
I have no doubt that members of the SEC are well-intentioned, good people who want to support ethical behavior by school officials. However, some of the advisory opinions go too far, while others have simply confused matters for board members. Some decisions put handcuffs of the management of New Jersey schools, a task that rightly rests with the locally elected or appointed board of education.
For example, the SEC issued several rulings that expanded the group of family relationships that create in-district and out-of-district negotiations conflicts for board members. Such expansions not only impede the management of our schools, but they can also run contrary to the intent of the ethics act. As the number of duly elected or appointed board members who can’t participate in negotiations shrinks, an increasing number of boards implement the “Doctrine of Necessity.” That process allows a board to be exempt from some of the nepotism requirements when so many board members are conflicted that they can’t reach the legally required quorum necessary to take action.
NJSBA has communicated local school board members’ concerns to the School Ethics Commission and to key state officials. Our goal is to ensure ethical behavior without paralyzing school officials in carrying out their responsibility to manage and govern public education. In other words, we need to bring the School Ethics Act back into context.
We are pleased to report that the SEC and lawmakers have been receptive to our concerns and suggestions, and we feel confident that this process will continue. NJSBA will keep its members updated on this process.
NJSBA is firmly committed to ethical standards for school officials. To be effective, however, the School Ethics Act must be interpreted in a way that is clear, consistent and logical. These elements, all too often, are missing from many of the School Ethics Commission’s recent opinions.