The New Jersey School Ethics Act, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-21 et seq., imposes ethics requirements that are applicable to school board members and administrators, as well as charter school trustees and charter school administrators. Not all school officials may be aware, though, that they are entitled to indemnification and representation by their school districts.
The Act contains conflict of interest restrictions that are applicable to all school officials, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24, as well as a code of ethics that is applicable to school board members, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1. The provisions are very broad, resulting in many complaints that are valid, but also many complaints that are invalid and merely attempt to settle political scores.
Any individual may bring a school ethics complaint. N.J.S.A. 18A:12-29(a). After a complaint is filed, the School Ethics Commission serves the complaint upon the school officials that are named. N.J.S.A. 18A:12-29(b).
A school official only has 20 days to respond to the complaint, N.J.A.C. 6A:28-7.3, so it is essential to promptly retain counsel after being served. A named school official has the option of either filing a motion to dismiss a school ethics complaint or to file an answer. N.J.S.A. 18A:12-29(b). If a party files a motion to dismiss, the School Ethics Commission must render a decision on whether there is probable cause, or if the complaint should be dismissed. N.J.S.A. 18A:12-29(b).
School officials may not be aware, but they are entitled to indemnification from administrative actions – such as school ethics complaints – under State law:
“Whenever any civil or administrative action or other legal proceeding has been or shall be brought against any person holding any office, position or employment under the jurisdiction of any board of education, including any student teacher or person assigned to other professional pre-teaching field experience, for any act or omission arising out of and in the course of the performance of the duties of such office, position, employment or student teaching or other assignment to professional field experience, the board shall defray all costs of defending such action, including reasonable counsel fees and expenses, together with costs of appeal, if any.”
Thus, school board members that are subjected to school ethics complaints may be entitled to representation at the District’s expense. Please contact our office today if you are a school official that has been served with a school ethics complaint or if you are a concerned citizen looking to assert a school ethics complaint.
Michael L. Collins is a Partner with King, Moench & Collins. He was previously appointed by the Governor to the School Ethics Commission and served as a Commissioner from 2017 to 2020. Mr. Collins may be reached at 732-546-3670 or firstname.lastname@example.org