A friend of Sunlight’s in West Orange informed us that NJEA Field Representative Brian Rock was elected president of the West Orange school board (WOBOE). While we know that several hundred NJEA members have run for school board and other political offices, these have largely been teachers, not full-time employees of the NJEA like Rock. As a full-time NJEA employee since 2019, Rock’s position as WOBOE president represents a substantial conflict of interest that appears to run afoul of the laws governing school boards in at least three ways.
The relevant law, NJSA 18A: 12-24(c), states:
No school official shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he … has a direct or indirect financial involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment. No school official shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he … has a personal involvement that is or creates some benefit to the school official … [Emphasis added.]
So a teacher who works (and is a NJEA member) in the same district where she is on the school board is deemed to have a conflict of interest and must recuse herself from negotiations and votes on the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the local union and the district. If she works in another district, she does not need to recuse herself because the benefit to her is too attenuated to constitute a conflict of interest.
But a Field Rep who is a full-time employee of the NJEA presents a different situation. Part of a Field Rep’s job is to help local associations in his region (Somerset and Hunterdon Counties) negotiate CBAs. They are the political pros who provide and coordinate state-level support, which includes NJEA research as well as negotiating and communications advice. Indeed, Rock, himself, was publicly praised by the NJEA for his successful work with the Flemington-Raritan Education Association (FREA) in gaining “significant salary improvements” in their CBA:
Led by FREA Negotiations Chair Sue Vala and NJEA Field Representative Brian Rock, FREA negotiated settlements more in line with surrounding counties. [Emphasis added.]
That’s the first way Rock’s conflict of interest manifests itself: higher pay for teachers in districts like West Orange help Rock succeed at his job as a NJEA Field Rep. Rock is now president of the WOBOE and would heavily influence CBA negotiations with the West Orange Education Association (WOEA). West Orange is in Essex County, which is a “surrounding county” of Somerset and Hunterdon Counties. During negotiations, the NJEA Research Division provides data on higher pay scales in other school districts in an effort to get the local school board to match them. If Rock, the school board president, negotiates higher salaries in West Orange, then Rock, the NJEA Field Rep in Somerset County, can point to West Orange as an example of where the Somerset district should be. This helps Rock succeed at his job as a Field Rep, win praise and recognition from his employer (see above), and potentially gain additional compensation or even promotion for being a successful Field Rep. These all constitute “some benefit” accruing to Rock, which would violate the above statute.
The second way Rock’s conflict of interest manifests itself: as a full-time NJEA employee, whose position, salary and (rich) pension are directly controlled by the NJEA, Rock’s allegiance to the NJEA — and to NJEA members, whose dues pay for Rock’s compensation — puts into question his “objectivity and independent judgment” when he is negotiating a CBA with the WOEA, who are all NJEA members. This would also violate the statute.
The third way: the higher the salaries for West Orange teachers and the teachers in Rock’s Field Rep region, the more easily they can pay their highest-in-the-nation, $999 dues to the NJEA — and thus Rock’s compensation. More benefit for Rock, more questions about his objectivity and independence, and more possible violations of the statute.
It could be argued that West Orange voters knew all of the above and still elected Rock to the board in 2021, but in Sunlight’s review of Rock’s campaign materials and a “Meet the Candidates” forum, we found no evidence that Rock ever disclosed his status as a full-time NJEA employee. Rather, he described himself as an “educator,” which implies being a teacher. Why didn’t Rock disclose his status as a full-time NJEA employee?
In any event, Sunlight believes that West Orange residents would have a strong case to make before the New Jersey School Ethics Commission, especially considering that Rock is now president of the WOBOE. Of course, these residents would have to pay their own legal costs while Rock would get top-notch legal representation for free, courtesy of his employer, the NJEA. Here and elsewhere around the state, this imbalance in resources seriously inhibits the ability of citizens to challenge these sorts of NJEA-driven conflicts of interest.
All of which leads us to ask: How many other full-time NJEA employees are serving on school boards?