Home>Highlight>Downey bill would block school officials from using position to engage in politics

Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Freehold). (Photo: Assembly Majority Office.)

Downey bill would block school officials from using position to engage in politics

By Nikita Biryukov, May 10 2021 5:49 pm

The Assembly Education Committee will hear a bill that would bar school administrators, school board members and professional staff at the New Jersey School Boards Association from using their positions to engage in political activities.

As written, the prohibition would go into effect in the 90 days leading up to an election, though Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Freehold), its sponsor, said she planned to amend to bill to remove the time constraint.

“That’s not their job. They’re there to make sure the school system runs well, the children are being educated properly and everything is running the way it’s supposed to,” she said. “They’re not supposed to be political activists in their job. They’re not supposed to use their position to influence elections.”

The legislation, which would amend the School Ethics Act, was spurred by school officials using school resources to advocate against legislators who backed a 2018 bill that adjusted the way New Jersey disbursed state funding for schools.

That change, meant to equitably spread school resources, pushed moneys to underfunded districts but reduced funding to others while phasing out adjustment aid that allowed some districts to receive outsized aid.

“This became a real issue for us in 2019 because one of our opponents was a Board of Education member who belong to a school district that was losing money, then a few superintendents inserted themselves into the last election to remind people about the amount of money they were losing under S2,” Downey said, referring to the school funding formula bill.

A superintendent in Downey’s district sent a letter to parents using a mailing list maintained by the school for official purposes, she said.

“That’s just inappropriate, and the reason I found out is I’m a parent,” she said. “I got it.”

The bill does not appear to bar school board members and other school officials from engaging in political activities independent of their positions, nor does it outline specific penalties, though the School Ethics Act allows the School Ethics Commission to reprimand, censure, suspend to remove officials who breach the act.

“They can always advocate for getting more money for their school districts. It’s not about that,” Downey said. “It’s about using their position to talk to voters, meaning the parents, to say this is wrong, that they’re losing money because of elected officials in their area. That’s improper. It’s not improper for them to come to their elected officials to say ‘we really are losing a lot of money and we need this.’”

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