BOE to get a lesson

| 15 Feb 2012 | 08:57

    Board attorney will conduct training on member roles SPARTA — A marathon meeting is planned for Sparta Board of Education members next week, as they will undergo a two-hour ethics training session prior to their regular monthly business meeting. Long-time board attorney Rod Hara will conduct the ethics training. Officials believe the training is necessary to ensure all board members are on the same page in terms of their expected roles and responsibilities, and especially the limitations and parameters of those roles, as they apply to the Board Members’ Code of Ethics that each new member takes an oath to uphold when they are sworn in. All newly elected board members are required by state law to attend specific training programs each year of their first term. The orientation was offered in June and will be offered again in September. According to the district office, Scott Turner, Frank Favichia, and Rich Bladek scheduled their orientation later this fall. Since certain issues have arisen over the last few months, ethics training will be part of the next meeting. According to NJSBA spokesperson, Mike Yaple, the required orientation session is “like a boot camp for new board members.” He said the orientation gives an overview of many aspects of being a board member, such as ethics, roles and responsibilities, policy making, and labor negotiations. Yaple said, “New board members usually don’t come to their positions with this kind of knowledge and need assistance in getting up to speed.” Since the state’s School District Accountability Act was signed into law in 2007, the New Jersey School Boards Association has been the designated training provider for all mandated training courses. A finance course is the mandated training for board members’ second year and a student achievement course is required in the third year of their terms. Board members’ roles Board of education members are elected by their communities, but their roles are different from most other elected officials. Unlike governors, senators, or state assembly people, a board member has no authority and cannot function as a board member unless with the full board, or a committee of the full board, at an officially convened meeting. Of key importance on this point, Yaple said, is that the board member cannot take action or make promises on his or her own and should refer any issues or concerns they receive from the community to the superintendent. Individual board members also cannot meet with or contact other public officials, either local or state, regarding official board business without the sanction of the full board, and without reporting back to the full board afterward. A board member cannot contact or direct district staff in an official capacity without the permission of the superintendent. As individuals, board members cannot make decisions for the board, take actions for the board, or speak for the board, unless the board has authorized them to do so. The NJSBA states the role of the board of education is ”not to run the schools, but to see that they are well run.” Their main responsibilities are “to adopt policies under which the school district operates, oversee the budget, approve the curriculum, hire and evaluate the superintendent, represent the public during contract negotiations, and serve as the communication link between the community and the school system.” The school board sets the goals, policies, and agenda for the district. The superintendent, as the educational leader of the district, runs the schools on a day-to-day basis and is in charge of implementing the board’s goals and objectives. Use of email Email can be an expedient means of communication for busy board members. But if board business is discussed by an effective majority of the board via email, it violates the Open Public Meetings Act, otherwise known as the Sunshine Laws, because it means that business is being conducted out of the view of the public. Yaple provided an article from the Aug. 9 issue of “School Board Notes” in which the use of email communications by public officials has recently come under scrutiny. Although the case involves municipal officials, it is also being used to caution school board members about what Yaple called, “The potential slippery slope of email use which can lead to an unwitting breach of the Open Public Meetings Act.” The prosecutor in the case made several recommendations, which include: Emails involving discussion of township [board] business should not include an effective majority. Where an email includes an effective majority, the communication should not include any request for a response, but should in fact discourage email replies. In the rare cases where a response to an email is necessary, the reply must not involve deliberative or decision-making functions of the governing body. "'Rolling’ email conversations must also be avoided,” the prosecutor’s opinion said. “A 'rolling’ email occurs when one member of the governing body or a third party contacts other members via email individually to successively discuss or gain opinions on an item of township [board] business.” These and other specifics regarding board members roles and ethics will be covered by board attorney Rod Hara next week. The meeting, originally scheduled for Monday, Aug. 29 has been changed to Wednesday, Aug. 31 and will take place at the Sparta Middle School. The ethics training will begin at 5:30 pm and is open to the public. The regular meeting will begin at 7:30 pm. District offices rattled by quake As if there have not been enough shakes ups in the Sparta school district over the past year, the district’s central office staff, housed in the offices of the Mohawk Avenue School building, were rattled along with a large portion of the eastern seaboard during Tuesday’s 5.8 magnitude earthquake centered in Virginia. As the floors moved and desks shook, Director of Buildings and Grounds Keith Gourlay asked staff to evacuate the building. Nothing was damaged and no one was injured, and the workday quickly returned to normal.