LIVINGSTON, NJ – New and existing Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) members rung in the new year with a formal ethics training, administered by the Livingston Public Schools’ (LPS) New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) representative, Charlene Peterson.
A requirement for each newly appointed school board member, the initial ethics overview training is presented by a member of the NJSBA at the start of the board member’s first year of his or her three-year term. Additional training must also be completed during the subsequent two-year period—training on school governance, changes to New Jersey school law and harassment, intimidation and bullying.
Similarly, each re-elected board member must repeat the ethics overview training during the first year following his or her re-election and also attend training on legal updates during his or her term.
Peterson cautioned that although many board members refer to themselves as volunteers, the more accurate description is that board members are elected officials who have an obligation to the community that elected them and subject to the dictates included in The School Ethics Act, around which the annual overview training is based.
“You have to hold the respect and confidence of the people who elected you by avoiding conflict and conduct that’s in violation of their trust, but by also avoiding conflict that creates a justifiable impression to the public that their trust has been violated,” said Peterson. “Bearing this in mind should help guide your behavior.”
To this end, Peterson said each board member must fill out a disclosure statement declaring any known business interest or other conflict—evidenced by themselves or immediate family members—that could impact the successful completion of his or her public duties.
The first ethics item reviewed centered on giving equal and open-minded consideration to all children in the district. This item precludes a board member from favoring personal connections or acting on personal predispositions to specific groups.
Although Peterson said it’s imperative that board members not give preferential treatment to family friends or business connections, it is within the rights of a board member who is also the parent of a student to represent his or her own child’s interest.
Peterson also stated that a board member’s role is not to administer the schools, but to set policy as part of a larger policy-setting team. Setting a policy course that bears in mind the best interest of the district only after there has been a presentation to those who could be impacted by the policies was also stressed.
Presenting the policies gives individuals the opportunity to raise questions or concerns and engage in exploratory discourse on that issue with the board before policies are set in stone, according to Peterson.
The ethics code asserts that the individual board member does not have the right to act in a silo so everything that happens, happens at the board table. The power and authority of the board can only be exercised while sitting as a group and determining courses of action as a team.
Board members are prohibited from taking individual action that would compromise the board, as well as participating in activities that would compromise their roles—either through involvement with partisan political or special interest groups or by taking advantage of the schools for personal gain for self, friends or family.
Also contained in the training was the topic of confidentiality, which pertains to any item discussed in the closed executive sessions held by the board.
“This protects the rights of your staff, your students and the legal rights of the district,” said Peterson.
Despite the misconception that school boards can make employment decisions within the schools, Peterson reiterated that the board is only permitted to weigh in, after careful consideration, by approving or disapproving the recommendations made by the chief administrative officer of the schools.
When it comes to addressing complaints, LBOE members were advised that, as per the code of ethics, all complaints should be referred to the chief administrative officer for resolution.
“You should consider yourselves to be the Court of Last Resort,” said Peterson. “You need to understand in your role that you can’t fix things, you can’t make promises to people, you can’t take action and get involved. If someone has an issue or situation, you should know where to refer them and what the steps are but know that you can’t fix it yourself.”
The state’s School Ethics Commission, a nine-member board that also serves a three-year term and is comprised of two board members, two administrators, and five school officials appointed by the Governor of New Jersey, oversees all schools’ ethics issues brought to their attention.