Court upholds censure of ex-BOE president

| 30 Sep 2011 | 09:45

    Schiavoni’s second attempt to reverse findings denied, By Fran Hardy Sparta — An appeal filed by former Sparta Board of Education president Mike Schiavoni, which he hoped would reverse the penalty of censure levied against him in 2009 by the state Commissioner of Education, was denied on June 1 by an Appellate Court ruling. The 2009 censure was the second one issued against Schiavoni by former Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy. In both cases, Davy upheld the State Ethics Commission’s recommendation of censure following hearings on several ethics complaints filed by a group of eight citizens against Schiavoni and five other former board members in 2007. Schiavoni appealed both cases, submitting a motion for the commissioner to reconsider the censure penalties. The first case In August, 2009, acting Commissioner of Education Brett Schundler denied Schiavoni’s motion for reconsideration of the first censure, which was for a letter to the editor to this newspaper that he wrote as board president without seeking the approval of the full board. The ethics commission ruled this was a violation of the School Ethics Act, specifically part e. of the ten-part school board member code of ethics, which states, “I recognize that authority rests with the board of education and will make no personal promises nor take any private action which may compromise the board.” The second case In September, 2009, Schundler denied Schiavoni’s motion for reconsideration of the second censure, which was for overstepping his role as a board member by involving himself in the staffing of district administrators and implementing his own staffing process. The commission ruled Schiavoni’s process violated section c. of the code, which states, “I will confine my board action to policy making, planning, and appraisal, and I will help to frame policies and plans only after the board has consulted those who will be affected by them.” The commission said Schiavoni’s actions also violated part d. of the code, which states, “I will carry out my responsibility not to administer the schools, but together with my fellow board members to see that they are well run.” It is this second censure concerning his administrative staffing process that Schiavoni further appealed at the Appellate Court level. But the court upheld the ethics commission ruling, saying Schiavoni violated the School Ethics Act “by unduly interfering with the school district’s hiring process in selecting new principals for an elementary school within the district and the district’s high school.” The Appellate Court ruling states, “The Commissioner noted that however worthy his intentions may have been, appellant’s conduct in interfering with the personnel decisions evince far more than a 'good faith disagreement’ about the extent to which a school board member may become involved in the hiring process for staff. Rather, the Commissioner regarded appellant’s actions as tantamount to a willful, full-scale usurpation of the role and responsibilities of the district administration.” At the heart of it The issue of where a board member’s role ends and where a district administrator’s role begins is at the heart of these rulings against Schiavoni. The often blurry line between these roles is the subject of many New Jersey School Boards Association training workshops which, according to NJSBA spokesperson Frank Belluscio, aim to clarify the duties of board of education members within the parameters of their code of ethics. In fact, this particular case involving Schiavoni’s staffing process was cited in a board member mandatory training workshop last year which attempted to show how easily board members can overstep their bounds. How it came about Schiavoni became a Sparta board member in 2005, serving as president from 2006 until he lost his reelection bid in 2008. In late 2007, the citizens’ group filed six ethics complaints against Schiavoni and five other former board members. Within the six complaints, there were various counts and within these, multiple violations of the ten-part code of ethics were cited against the six respondents. When added together between all six respondents, these specific alleged violations totaled 115. A frequent misunderstanding in the public has been that there were 115 separate ethics charges or complaints. However, according to the Ethics Commission, there were six multi-count complaints filed by the citizens. Of these six complaints, all were moved forward to hearings before the commission. Four were subsequently dismissed, but the commission found three violations within two of the complaints against Schiavoni, resulting in the two censures. No other violations were found against the other five.