According to a new advisory opinion, A13-15, issued by the School Ethics Commission (SEC) last week, a board member who is also employed as an administrator in another school district is not prohibited from participating in negotiations with the local NJEA affiliate, so long as there is no linkage between either district’s NJEA affiliate and the union representing the board member/school administrator.

Conflict of Interest Questions

In this most recent clarification of administrator conflicts-of-interest, the individual who requested the advisory opinion, in addition to serving as a board member, was also employed as a supervisor in a nearby district and was an active member of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisor’s Association (NJPSA).  The SEC noted that in this particular case, there was no connection between NJPSA and the local NJEA affiliate with which the local district was negotiating. While teachers in both of the local districts were represented by NJEA affiliates, neither affiliate was engaged in a contractual relationship with the other. In addition, the supervisors of the employing district were not governed by terms in the contracts between the boards and their respective NJEA affiliates.

Because there was no linkage between any of the teaching or supervisory affiliates, or between either of the boards of education, the SEC found that no violation of the School Ethics Act would occur if the board member/supervisor were to negotiate with the NJEA in the district in which she served as a board member. It should be noted, however, that the SEC explicitly limited its advisory opinion to the facts specified in the request, and advised that different facts, or a newly discovered personal involvement, could lead to a different result.

Board Member Volunteers

In another opinion, A17-15, the SEC clarified the roles that board members can play when they volunteer in their local districts. In the advisory opinion, the board member volunteered to construct sets for the high school play and props for the marching band. The board member’s volunteer services for the play were limited to ensuring that the props were appropriately constructed and/or repaired, while as a marching band volunteer, the board member loaded and unloaded equipment and made repairs to props. In both roles, the board member’s interaction with staff was very limited.

The SEC began its analysis by indicating that it does not consider its prior opinions as imposing a general prohibition against volunteering by board members and went on to recognize the significant contribution made by board members who, by definition, serve as volunteers.

The SEC then went on to distinguish the above types of volunteer activities from the activities contemplated in previous advisory opinions. Accordingly, volunteering under the following conditions appears to be permissible: the board member/volunteer cannot serve in a leadership role over a committee or group nor can the board member/volunteer be subject to a widespread level of direction from staff, students or other board members. In addition, the instruction the board member/volunteer receive from staff should be limited to that instruction necessary for the successful completion of the task at hand, in this instance, the school play and marching band performances. The SEC went on to note 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. As with A13-15, the SEC limited the advisory opinion to the facts recited in the initial request; different facts could yield a different result.  Accordingly, board members should seek the advice of the board attorney before volunteering to serve in their local districts.