RANDOLPH, NJ - Each year, the Board of Education receives training on ethics and N.J. State Law. Board counsel, Marc Zitomer, reminded members that they must avoid not only conduct in violation of the public trust, but also the justifiable impression of a violation.
“Board members not only have to avoid actual conflicts of interest,... you also have to avoid, what I refer to as, the appearance of impropriety,” Zitomer explained.
He went over specific areas that result in the most complaints against board members and then quizzed each member over various cases from the past year across New Jersey.
“Maintaining confidentiality, to me, is one of the most important provisions of the Code of Ethics,” Zitomer said. “If the Board of Education loses trust in that what is said in closed session is going to stay in closed session, it really impedes your ability to function well.”
He reminded the board members of their “responsibility, not to administer the schools, but, together with my fellow board members, to see that they are well run.”
An example of a violation would be board members giving direct orders to district employees, Zitomer continued. The board is primarily responsible for policy making, planning and appraisal after consulting with stakeholders, and members cannot make personal promises to residents.
Another significant code provision for board members reads, “I will refer all complaints to the chief administrative officer and will act on the complaints at public meetings only after failure of an administrative solution.”
This means that board members should “steer a parent in the right direction,” Zitomer said, towards the chain command. For example, if a parent approaches a board member in the grocery store, the board member should direct them to the teacher, school principal or the superintendent, he detailed.
Zitomer also clarified the role of free speech for board members, saying, “You have the right to express your opinions on issues -- that’s why you were elected -- but you can’t disclose information which is inaccurate… or confidential.”
“You have to make it clear that you are expressing your own individual opinion, and that you are not speaking on behalf of the board,” he explained. From Zitomer’s research and experience, board members typically struggle with these boundaries when posting on social media.