LIVINGSTON, NJ - Last week, The Alternative Press revealed the existence of tension on the Livingston Board of Education, prompting many to question whether board members are responsibly representing the public, or acting personally or inappropriately in the performance of their duties.
The interpretation of the rules of conduct for Board members, and the need for members to conform to the Board's policies and procedures relating to roles and responsibilities, speaks to the very heart of the ethical behavior required of elected officials. In the strictest sense, "ethics" defines an individual or organization's moral principles: their values, conduct, the rightness or wrongness of their actions, and the goodness or badness of the motives - and consequences - of those actions.
As part of our ongoing investigative series regarding the Livingston Board of Education, we have reviewed the Code of Ethics for School Board Members: a legal document that every member of a Board of Education in New Jersey is sworn to uphold under N.J.S.A.:18A-12-24.1. The Alternative Press recently had the opportunity to discuss the Code of Ethics with Frank Belluscio, Director of Communications for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
The Code succinctly outlines the duties and responsibilities of a Board member, and delineates the State (and local school Board's) expectations for ethical behavior. Among the important points covered under the Code are the following expectations:
• A Board member pledges to carry out his or her responsibility not to administer the schools, but together with their fellow board members, to see that they are well run;
• A member must recognize that authority rests with the Board of Education (and not with individual Board members;
• The Code forbids members from taking any private action that may compromise the Board;
• Board members must refuse to surrender their independent judgment to special interests or partisan political groups, or to use the schools for personal gain or for the gain of friends;
• Board members must hold confidential all matters pertaining to the schools, which, if disclosed, would needlessly injure individuals or the schools;
• Members must support and protect school personnel in the proper performance of their duties, and;
• Members will refer all complaints to the chief administrative officer and act on the complaints at public meetings only after failure of an administrative solution.
The recent allegations made by several Livingston Board of Education members - coupled with citizen interviews and information gleaned from documents obtained by the Alternative Press under the Open Public Records Act - raise the question as to whether all members of the Livingston Board are adhering to the Code of Ethics, and confining their action to what is legally within their scope. The Alternative Press has reviewed documents that indicate certain Board members may be interfering with the educational process, which is specifically prohibited under the Code of Ethics.
What exactly is a Board member's role in the educational process?
In a nutshell, the Board is legally charged with creating the policies that the administration uses as a blueprint for running the schools. Through policy, the Board outlines the district's philosophies, goals, and objectives, and provides the framework for the administration to build educationally sound curriculum and programming. But, once the policies are set, the Board must give the administration ample leeway in allowing them to determine the best way to meet the district's goals and objectives, and fulfill the intent of its educational philosophies. In short, Boards are not responsible for running the schools; that task falls to the Superintendent and his or her staff.
According to Belluscio, "It is the body's responsibility to question proposals by the administration, but not to run the schools. The board hires the Superintendent to do that, and [the Board] should be evaluating the Superintendent based on his performance." In Livingston, as in most districts, the Superintendent is evaluated periodically throughout the year. Turning the reins over to an administrator that the Board trusts is often difficult, especially if the Board has a history of poor governance or exceptional Board member involvement. Good governance dictates that each individual or group in the organization understand their role and scope of their authority, and do their best work within the parameters of their specter of control. Once individuals or groups within the organization begin to encroach on the roles of others, trust - and effective leadership - is compromised. This appears to be a cause of the tension that currently exists on the Board in Livingston.
Belluscio told The Alternative Press that when it comes to boards of education, "We're dealing with people. It [deliberations] can get heated. Education can become a passionate issue. Board members should not let their passion get in the way of an effective relationship with each other, or with the administration." He also explained that it is essential for Board members to, "Know how to disagree."
While serving on a Board is akin to walking a tightrope, adhering to the tenets and principles of the Code of ethics is something that every Board member is required to take seriously. Breaches of the Code constitute a direct violation of the legal Code, and more importantly, the public trust. The Alternative Press has learned that the Livingston Board of Education is scheduled to discuss several policies pertaining to governance and Board member conduct at tonight's Board of Education meeting, in an attempt to do just that.
Editor's Note: During the last week, The Alternative Press has been both praised and chastised for the information presented in our article regarding the Livingston Board of Education.
One of the founding principles of journalism is that newspapers should serve as a check on the power of government. A newspaper's role is to provide objective news and information to the public so that the public can exercise informed decision-making. A newspaper also serves as a watchdog for the public. Whether you agree with one side or the other on the Livingston Board of Education, it is imperative that substantiated allegations of inappropriate conduct on the part of any elected official be brought to light, and that should such conduct be proven, steps to correct that behavior be taken by the entity that the offender represents. Every citizen should demand ethical, honest behavior of public officials - and transparency and accountability on every level from the municipal and educational organizations that serve us.