Education

NJ Legislator: School Board Candidates May Want to Check for Skeletons in Closet

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Three members of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education will be up for re-election on April 17, if they choose to run, but the election may be a little different this year because of a state law that requires background checks for board members.

 The law was enacted in May 2011. In the South Orange-Maplewood School District, all the board members have undergone background checks and were cleared to continue serving, according to the district’s communication coordinator, Judy Levy.

However, for non-incumbent candidates, the background check acts a caution when deciding whether to run. Assemblyman Jerry Green, D-Union, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said the law does not require candidates for school board to undergo a background check. However, he said, it was unlikely a candidate would run knowing he or she had a previous conviction that would disqualify him or her.

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"No one would want to embarrass themselves by knowing when they run they’ve been convicted of a crime” that would prevent the member from serving on the board, Green said.

Green said if board members who have previously cleared background checks are re-elected, they will probably not have to submit one again. Instead, they would sign a form stating they have not been convicted of a crime that would disqualify them since completing the background check.

The law is the only one of its kind in the nation. It means that board of education members are held to the same standards as school district employees have been for the past 25 years, Green said.

When asked whether school board members interacted as much with students as other school employees, Green responded that he felt the background checks were necessary because board members held many important decisions in their hands that affected the students, such as district budgets.

Across New Jersey, nine school board members and three charter school trustees have been disqualified for prior criminal convictions across the state as of Jan 18, according to the N.J. School Board Association.

The law disqualifies any school board member from continuing to serve if they have committed certain crimes, including any drug convictions, convictions for crimes with force or the threat of force to a person or property such as robbery, aggravated assault and murder, and other crimes such as criminal mischief, resisting arrest and bias intimidation.

Not all board of education members in New Jersey had completed background checks by the Dec. 31 deadline, Green said. The deadline was extended to Jan. 27.

 “This is the first law of its kind in the nation, so there needed to be some minor adjustments,” Green said, adding that while there were some bumps in the road this year due to the law’s newness, he expected the process to be smoother in the future.

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