RANDOLPH, NJ - At Tuesday’s meeting, the board of education members received their annual ethics training from their legal counsel, Marc Zitomer. He explained several policies that apply to everyday interactions with the public and gave a short “pop quiz” at the end of the presentation.
Zitomer reminded the board to avoid not only actual conflicts of interest, but also the “justifiable impression” of a conflict to the public.
“You have to avoid… the appearance of impropriety,” Zitomer began. “If it feels like someone could accuse you of having a bias or a personal or financial vested interest,… it’s something you should abstain from.”
The Code of Ethics explains that the board is “not to administer the school, but see it is well run.”
“You shouldn’t be giving direct orders to school personnel, you shouldn’t be walking the school telling the teachers how to do their jobs,” Zitomer continued. “Ultimately, you do vote on those things once they're presented through regular meetings… but the day-to-day functions of the school district are not board member functions.”
“You’re not administrators; you hired administrators. Your job is to evaluate those administrators to make sure they’re carrying out the mission of the school district as established by the board, but you shouldn’t be administering the school,” he explained.
The board is only involved in policy making, planning for the future of the district and appraisal of board goals. They cannot make personal promises nor take private action.
While board members have the right to free speech as citizens, confidentiality remains a top priority not only when it relates to student matters, but also school personnel.
“Your spouses are not bound to the code of ethics; your children are not bound to the code of ethics,” Zitomer stressed, “so you should not be discussing these issues with people that are not bound by the oath that you swore to uphold.”
“Let’s say you are no longer a board member and six months has passed, what restrictions do you have as a former board member in terms of talking about your time in closed and open session?” asked board member Tammy MacKay.
“You are absolutely bound to maintain the confidentiality of those things that came into your purview as a board member forever,” Zitomer replied. “The law says that those things we discuss in closed are confidential, until the needs for confidentiality no longer exists.... Student matters are always going to be confidential.”
When board members are exercising their right to free speech, they may not discloses confidential, inaccurate information that may compromise the public’s trust in the board, Zitomer cautioned.
“You need to have a disclaimer. You need to say that you’re speaking as a citizen, and your opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the board of education,” Zitomer explained.
The last important policy covered was the chain of command for complaints. Because board members are not to administer the school, they cannot act on complaints received from the public.
Zitomer advised board members to first ensure that the complaint has been addressed with the teacher and school administration, then report the complaint to the superintendent.
“This is your opportunity to say, ‘I can’t resolve that complaint on my own, nor am I supposed to. My job is to report this to the chief school administrator, which I will do, and it will be addressed,’” Zitomer said. “There’s nothing wrong with pointing parents to the chain of command. A lot of parents think they can go straight to the Board of Education without exhausting the earlier steps.”
The pop quiz referenced actual N.J. cases from 2016 related to conflict of interest, confidentiality and free speech. The board members answered correctly, but Zitomer encouraged them to ask for counsel anytime they face a questionable situation or policy.