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  • LC Beth F
  • The Role of Board Members and
    the School District Interview/Hiring Process

    The question of whether it is appropriate for board of education members to be involved in the interview process when the school district is hiring any staff member who reports to the superintendent, or when such a staff member leaves the district, has just been clarified by the School Ethics Commission in Advisory Opinion A31-15 (January 26, 2016). The School Ethics Commission (hereinafter “Commission”) unequivocally stated therein that it “does not, (emphasis supplied) ... support Board members conducting interviews for positions below that of Superintendent.” Id.
    The Commission issued this advisory in response to a request by Strauss Esmay Associates, LLP, because several school districts were seeking clarification regarding this issue given the tension between two previous opinions: Advisory Opinion A15-10 (February 14, 2011) and Advisory Opinion A04-12 (April 17, 2012). A15-10 responded to an inquiry as to whether it was appropriate for board members to conduct or participate in exit interviews. The New Jersey School Boards Association had released a policy statement encouraging the practice of conducting exit interviews, and the statement appeared to be encouraging board members to conduct the same. The Commission concluded that board member involvement in such interviews would be a violation of Board Member Code of Ethics provisions N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(c) and (d). These sections provide:
    I will confine my board action to policy making, planning, and appraisal, and I will help frame policies and plans only after the board has consulted those who be affected by them. 
    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.
    The Commission noted that board member participation in exit interviews did not fall within the board’s policy making, planning and appraisal role. Furthermore, the Commission asserted that by engaging in such activities, board members would actually be involved in the day to day administration of the schools because overseeing personnel is an administrative function.

    In A04-12, the Commission was responding to whether it is appropriate for board members to participate on interview committees for any administrative or supervisory position, and assistant superintendent and business administrator in particular. Once again, the Commission referenced N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(c) and (d). This time, however, the Commission noted that board members could participate as part of its planning and appraisal function provided that the committee does not have more than one or two board members, is coordinated by administrative staff, and board members limit their input to observations and assessments with full knowledge that the final recommendation is completely within the purview of the superintendent.

    In A31-15, the Commission provided the following clarification. Individual boards may determine whether they would like to have a personnel committee, but the Commission does not support board members conducting interviews for positions below Superintendent. If a board decides to have a personnel committee, only one or two board members may participate and their role is limited to offering observations and assessments. Board members may not conduct the interviews. The Commission cautioned that “[s]electing candidates for District positions and making recommendations is the role of the superintendent. Prior to the recommendations, board members have no role in selecting candidates for the positions other than that of superintendent.” Id.

    The Commission further explained that if a board chooses to have a personnel committee, the superintendent must consent to its establishment and it must function with the superintendent’s approval. “Boards of Education and individual board members must always understand that it is the Superintendent’s authority to recommend hires to the Board. A Personnel Committee cannot supersede or usurp that authority.” Id.

    The Commission also warned that even a personnel committee functioning under the narrow parameters outlined in the opinion “invites the danger that the individual Board members may violate their obligations under the Act...” Id.; N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(c) and (d). The Commission also cited N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(h) noting that it is a board member’s role to vote to appoint the best qualified personnel after consideration of the recommendation superintendent. Id.

    The Commission concluded that interviewing is an administrative function and not within the board member’s authority. Hence, the Commission does not “advocate for any Board member’s involvement in any interview process prior to the candidate first being recommended by the Superintendent.” Id.

    School administrators should review this clarifying advisory opinion with their board attorneys to be certain that their policies and practices comply with the Commission’s recommendations. School administrators should also seek the assistance of their board attorneys in assuring all personnel practices are compliant.