The New Jersey School Ethics Act was enacted with the noble intention of promoting ethical behavior among school board members. However, in recent years, it has been utilized as a tool to stifle the free speech rights of board members who express their opinions on matters of public concern. This misuse of the act has resulted in an unnecessary burden on taxpayers who must bear the cost of defending against meritless complaints.
The New Jersey School Ethics Act establishes a clear code of ethics for school board members, which includes standards for ethical behavior, guidelines for avoiding conflicts of interest, and requirements for maintaining confidentiality. These principles are essential for fostering a culture of accountability, transparency, and integrity within the school board.
However, the act also provides a mechanism for filing ethics complaints against board members. While the intent behind this provision was to address genuine ethical violations, it has unfortunately, in my opinion, been abused by individuals who use it to target board members with whom they disagree. This type of abuse of the complaint process undermines its integrity and consumes valuable time and resources that could be better used elsewhere.
The Financial Burden on Taxpayers
The ethics complaint process has a significant financial impact on taxpayers. Board members are often indemnified, meaning they are protected against financial loss in the event of a lawsuit or ethics complaint. Unfortunately, many districts do not have insurance plans in place to cover the cost of these legal battles, leaving taxpayers to bear the full financial burden. This is a concerning issue, as it diverts precious resources away from the education of our students and into the pockets of lawyers and legal expenses.
My Personal Journey with the Complaint Process
On August 19, 2022, a Chesterfield resident served me with an Ethics Complaint. The complaint alleged that I violated the School Ethics Act by making a post on a Facebook page criticizing the Burlington County Department of Health in relation to a correction they made regarding COVID-19 guidance for schools. The complaint claimed that my post could compromise the Board and bring their cooperation with the Burlington County Department of Health into question.
However, the School Ethics Commission (“NJSEC”) dismissed the complaint due to its lack of merit. The NJSEC recognized that I was expressing my personal views on a matter of public concern, which is protected by my First Amendment rights. The Commission acknowledged that I was using my personal Facebook page and explicitly stated that I was not speaking on behalf of the Board. As a result, the NJSEC concluded that the complaint was baseless and without any reasonable basis in law or equity. The dismissal of the complaint by the NJSEC serves as a powerful reminder that our right to express our views and engage in public discourse should not be infringed upon, even when those views may be unpopular or controversial.
Unfortunately, the ethics complaint filed against me was not an isolated incident. The same individual has filed another case that is currently pending before the Office of Administrative Law (OAL). In my opinion, the continuation of this case, despite my no longer being a board member, is a waste of valuable resources and a burden on taxpayers. It results in needless legal expenses and administrative costs that could be better utilized elsewhere.
It is important for the public to understand that any outcome of this pending case would be inconsequential, as I am no longer serving on the board. Furthermore, each ethics case is evaluated based on its specific facts and circumstances, meaning that any outcome would not set a precedent for future cases.
The New Jersey School Ethics Act has a noble purpose, but its potential for abuse has become a problem, Based on my experience, I believe the abuse of the Act has reached a point where it is no longer serving its intended purpose of promoting ethical behavior among board members. Instead, it has become a tool for individuals to advance their own political and personal agendas at the expense of taxpayers. The community must work together to ensure that the School Ethics Act is used in a fair and ethical manner, and that taxpayer dollars are not wasted on unmerited complaints.