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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Guidelines considered by the Commissioner of Education when adjudicating an application seeking the removal of a member of a board of education or a school officer


Guidelines considered by the Commissioner of Education when adjudicating an application seeking the removal of a member of a board of education or a school officer
Decisions of the Commissioner of Education, Decision 16,593

In considering this application seeking the removal of certain members of the school district’s board of education, the Commissioner first recited the litigation and other procedures over a number of years in which the parties to this application were involved and noted that “the history of dissention and conflict” affecting the school district is well documented by the numerous legal actions in recent years involving the district.

In the words of the Commissioner: “The record before me illustrates all too well how conflict and an atmosphere of this nature can interfere with the board’s ability to govern the affairs of the district and can undermine the public’s confidence in its elected school board. I strongly urge respondents and the board to engage in constructive discussions – not only as a board, but also with district staff and the community – aimed at eliminating conflict and achieving the best possible governance of the school district.”

After addressing a number of procedural matters, the Commission turned to the merits of the application in which it was alleged that conflicts of interest involving certain members of the school board had surfaced in the course of a board meeting and sought the removal of the board members.

In adjudicating an application seeking to remove a member of a board of education or a school officer the Commissioner noted the following criteria:

1. A member of a board of education or a school officer may be removed from office pursuant to Education Law §306 when it is proven to the satisfaction of the Commissioner that the board member or school officer has engaged in a willful violation or neglect of duty under the Education Law or has willfully disobeyed a decision, order, rule or regulation of the Board of Regents or Commissioner of Education.

2. In an application for removal of a member of a board of education or a school officer brought pursuant to Education Law §306, the petitioner has the burden of demonstrating a clear legal right to the relief requested and the burden of establishing the facts upon which the petitioner seeks relief. *

3. Pursuant to §277.1(a) of the Commissioner’s regulations, the application “must distinctly state the willful violation of law, neglect of duty, or willful disobedience
of a decision, order or regulation of the commissioner charged against the officer....”

The petition submitted to the Commissioner seeking the removal of the board members alleged only that the named individuals violated board bylaws and policies, including §6110,** with respect to their conduct at a particular board meeting when they debated and voted upon various resolutions without publicly disclosing their alleged interests in such resolutions.

However, said the Commissioner, “it is well settled that, even if proven, violation of a board’s bylaws or policies, by itself, does not constitute sufficient grounds for removal of a member of a board of education in a proceeding pursuant to Education Law §306.”

Here it was alleged that the conflict of interest provisions of Article 18 of the General Municipal Law were violated because the board members had friendships or personal relationships with the subjects of the resolutions voted on at the board meeting. However the Commissioner held that the petitioner failed to establish facts sufficient to warrant the removal of the board member pursuant to Education Law §306 on this basis.

The Commissioner explained that the conflict of interest provisions of the General Municipal Law*** define an interest as "a direct or indirect pecuniary or material benefit accruing to a municipal officer or employee as the result of a contract with the municipality which such officer or employee serves." Further, said the Commissioner, there is no provision in the General Municipal Law that deems a board member to have an automatic interest in a contract between a friend and the district in which the board member serves. Citing Opinion of the State Comptroller No. 83-40, the Commissioner pointed out that such an interest would arise only if a board member was to derive a direct or indirect pecuniary or material benefit from the resolution.

In contrast to alleging or establishing that any board member received a pecuniary or material benefit from their actions, the petitioner “merely alleges that they had undisclosed personal relationships relating to their votes.”

Noting that the petitioner cited no authority for the proposition that a friendship or social relationship, by itself, creates a conflict of interest, the Commissioner ruled that the petitioner had failed to sustain his burden of demonstrating a clear legal right to the relief requested and denied his application to remove the board members.

* See 8 NY CRR §275.10.

** §6110(3)(e) of the district’s ethics policy, which states that a member of the board shall “publicly disclose on the official record the nature and extent of any direct or indirect financial or other interest he/she has” in a resolution before the board.

*** See General Municipal Law §800[3].

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.counsel.nysed.gov/Decisions/volume53/documents/d16593.pdf
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