Summit Board of Education Members Schooled on Ethics

September 20, 2013 at 4:01 PM

SUMMIT, NJ - When does a parent cease being an advocate for his or her child?  The answer may be when they assume responsibility for policies affecting all of the school children in a community.

The assumption of responsibility for policies affecting the entire school community comes when a citizen becomes a member of the board of education.

That was the impression members of the public and the Summit Board of Education were left with on Thursday as the board underwent an ethics training session by attorney Anthony P. Sciarrillo of the Westfield firm of Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper.

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School body members must undergo the training sessions but they may choose to do them privately or in public.

Sciarrillo explained the “five Cs” of the state code of ethics of school board members: Confidentiality, conflicts, chain-of-command, claims and commitment.

The attorney noted that certain board matters, such as negotiations, personnel, contracts and litigation are protected from public disclosure while they are under discussion and the board must hold such discussions in private sessions in order to protect the confidentiality of parties involved.  He said board members are bound to protect this confidentiality even after they leave a school body.

For example, if the board is discussing various school improvements and a school district may be the recipient of state or federal funding for any phase of those improvements, board members and district management staff are precluding from disclosing the school improvement options until a school improvement plan actually is approved by the entire school board.

Superintendent of Schools Nathan Parker wanted to know the parameters under which a supervisor's process for selecting a school employee must be kept confidential.

Sciarrillo replied that, beyond demonstrating that he or she fairly follows all the parameters of the hiring process outlined when a position is advertised and all candidates are treated fairly the supervisor does not have to disclose the exact process through which a candidate is selected.

Another controversial topic during the session was the discussion on conflicts. Under the code, the attorney said, school board members must not advocate any position that would specifically benefit their own child above other children.

The state ethics commission has pretty much determined, he noted, that, there is no problem in favoring a position that helps all children in a district equally as long as it is not specifically aimed at benefiting the child of a particular board member.

For example, if a board decides to purchase new uniforms that will be distributed to an entire school band there is nothing wrong with that decision even if the children of a board member are band members and, therefore, also will receive new uniforms.

The third tenet discussed by Sciarrillo was the “chain-of-command,” under which board members only possess the power to act when they are sitting as members of a community's education body.  They are not to act as “ombudsmen” for a particular point of view, even in private conversations outside of board meetings.

The attorney also noted that board members cannot serve if they have filed claims against a school district and will be forced to resign or be terminated if they file such claims.

Commitment to a school board position, he added, involves missing no more than three regular board meetings per year and abiding by the ethics code.

Sciarrillo noted that, if a board member should miss more than three meetings, he or she may explain the reasons for missing those meetings to the school body and the other members may vote on whether the member should remain on the board.  An adverse ruling also can be appealed to the state.

He also explained the Doctrine of Necessity, through which boards provide for enough votes to do business when board members have conflicts of interest.

Should there be enough conflicts to interfere with passage of a measure, the attorney noted, the board president must ask the board attorney to invoke the Doctrine of Necessity.  Under that procedure, each member must reveal what their potential conflicts are and, after a ruling by the board attorney, those with conflicts of interest would be permitted to vote.

On one matter, the attorney noted, it turns out that the Summit board has a policy that is more strict than that of the state, which is allowed under state laws.

The Summit school district nepotism policy says that any relative of any district staff member cannot be employed by the district, while the state only forbids the hiring of relatives of superintendents of schools or board of education members.

In other news at Thursday's board of education session board member David Dietze cited staff members who have attained tenure.

In addition, the following teachers celebrating 25 years of service with the district received commendations from board member Edgar Mokuvos.

  • Lisa Britton, a special education teacher
  • Janet Gibney, a teacher in the mult-age curriculum at Jefferson Primary Center
  • John Kratch, a history teacher at Summit High School

Twenty-five-year teaching staff members Debra Kosak and Ralph Lamparello also were honored but were unable to attend Thursday's session.

On another matter, high school principal Paul Sears reviewed the most recent school performance test results, indicating “consistent progress” in the same cohort of students who took the NJASK test in eighth grade and the HSPT or High School Proficiency Test in the 11th grade.

Sears also said the results showed “consistent high performance” among all students in all standardized tests.

As one example of this, he noted there had been a 14.6 percent increase in the number of students taking AP tests and a 6.6 percent increase in those scoring 3 or above.  Five is the top score in the AP tests.

In 2012-2013, he added, 88.7 percent of Summit High School students taking the test had a score of three or above on at least one exam.  This was well above the state average of 74.6 percent and the global average of 60.8 percent.

On another matter, board president Gloria Ron-Fornes told Wolfgang Guenther, vice president of the Lincoln-Hubbard School Parent Teacher Organization that a board committee was looking into a suggestion that students in the school be required to wear school uniforms.  The suggestion came from a school survey released in January that showed a majority of those responding to the Lincoln-Hubbard survey favored the uniform policy.

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