Last week, Sunlight pointed out that NJEA Field Rep/West Orange BOE (WOBOE) President Brian Rock has a serious and actionable conflict of interest. Rock’s position as a full-time NJEA employee makes his case different from that of a teacher serving on a school board, and the incentives his job creates runs afoul of the laws governing school boards. Sunlight then asked if there were other full-time NJEA employees serving on school boards. Unsurprisingly, the answer turns out to be “yes.”
This week we heard from a concerned citizen in Randolph, where full-time NJEA employee Amanda Adams was recently elected to the school board. There are factors that differentiate Adam’s case from Rock’s. First, to her credit, Adams was upfront about her NJEA employment; Rock was not. So voters elected Adams with full knowledge of the potential conflict, whereas West Orange voters did not. In addition, Rock is a NJEA Field Rep who helps local unions negotiate contracts and uses higher salaries in surrounding counties to push school boards in his region to match the higher salaries. So, as WOBOE president, he is incentivized to maximize teacher salaries in West Orange, which will help him do his job as a NJEA Field Rep.
But as a full-time NJEA employee, Adams still has a conflict of interest. On her BOE election slate’s website, Adams likens her status as a NJEA employee to being a teacher, but this is misleading. As a full-time NJEA employee, Adams’ salary and pension are entirely controlled by the NJEA, and as a school board member, her allegiance to the NJEA — and to its members whose dues pay for them — could reasonably be seen to impair her objectivity and independence when negotiating with the Randolph Education Association (REA), all of whose teachers are NJEA members. In addition, salary increases for REA teachers make it easier for them to pay their highest-in-the-nation, $999 annual NJEA dues, which fund Adams’ compensation. This could be seen as a benefit to Adams.
On the other hand, a teacher’s salary and pension are controlled by the local school board and the state, respectively. Unless a teacher serves on the school board in the district where she teaches — in which case she would have to recuse herself — her potential benefit is too attenuated to constitute a conflict.
Adams actually acknowledges her potential conflict and states that the School Ethics Commission has ruled that “it is NOT a conflict of interest for a board member to be part of the NJEA, so long as they do not participate directly in negotiations or be present in closed session when union matters are discussed.” [Emphasis added.] This conveniently elides over the distinction between a teacher and a full-time NJEA employee, but more importantly, it implies that Adams will recuse herself from negotiations and closed sessions. Will Adams commit to this? Some concerned Randolph citizen should ask her.
If Adams commits to recuse herself, then she will negate any conflict of interest issues and should be praised for proactively dealing with the problem. All would be above-board.
If Adams does not commit to recuse herself, then there is a strong case that her status as a full-time NJEA employee violates the language of the law and would be a valid case to bring before the School Ethics Commission.
Again, some concerned Randolph citizen should ask her at the next school board meeting.