South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker urged caution today in coverage and discussion of a traffic stop involving Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad and subsequent questions about the Board of Education and Board President’s role in handling knowledge of the incident.
“To the extent that the Village Green or other publications are publishing statements by other Board members that discuss matters that are privileged or subject to confidentiality laws that require matters to be discussed in executive session, I would caution that those statements may themselves be violations of the ethics code and other applicable laws. I will not go tit for tat with other Board members in the media. It is not productive and it is harmful to the work of the District, but I urge Village Green and its readers to be mindful of this.”
Baker additionally wrote, “Thank you for the opportunity to comment. The challenge that I and other Board members face is how to respond to questions that the community has in a way that does not result in internal Board business being conducted via the media and also to make sure that we are not violating other ethical obligations that we have as Board members — including the duty not to divulge privileged attorney-client communications with District counsel.”
“As I indicated last week, I reached out and obtained guidance from the District’s counsel promptly after I was contacted by the South Orange Village Administrator, and I have continued to do so. I cannot ethically disclose what counsel advised as the attorney-client privilege is the District and Board’s privilege, not that of an individual Board member. I cannot waive the privilege.”
“Other Board members have been privy to the advice that I received from the District’s counsel – both through me and by contacting the District’s counsel themselves. I do not know if every member has elected to speak with the District’s counsel though I am aware of statements made by one Board member in another publication that she too consulted with our counsel.”
In response to a question from Village Green on whether the Board of Education had discussed the issue of the traffic stop, Baker responded:
“As a general matter, the Board can discuss legal matters as a full Board (i.e. a quorum with more than five members) and obtain legal advice as a full Board from the District counsel in executive session. The Board has noticed a special executive session for tonight Monday May 21 which is specifically noticed to discuss matters relating to the superintendent search and the superintendent evaluation process. This executive session can only be attended by non-conflicted Board members.”
Baker continued, “Legal matters were not noticed for the executive session agenda and therefore, under the Open Public Meetings Act, they cannot be discussed.”
“The Board has, however, noticed a second executive session for Wednesday May 23 in which it will discuss legal matters.”
“While I am aware that members of our community may question why school board members cannot publicly share what is discussed in executive session when members of other local governing bodies have disclosed in the media the actions that their bodies may have taken and/or discussions that they have had in executive session, I do not know on what legal authority they have relied on. I can only speak to the law under the Open Public Meetings Act as it applies to school boards, and the school board member code of ethics.”
Village Green also asked Baker if the traffic stop had been referred to the NJ Department of Education Ethics Commission. Baker responded:
“The Board has not referred the traffic stop incident to the School Ethics Commission. It is my understanding that a local school board cannot file an ethics complaint against a member with the School Ethics Commission.
If you are asking whether I or another member of the Board contacted the School Ethics Commission for guidance after receiving the communication from South Orange — I have not because the School Ethics Commission does not provide board members with real time or informal ethics consultations. The process for obtaining a formal advisory opinion from the School Ethics Commission takes several months (and sometimes longer). But this should not be construed to mean that I or other Board members do not have legal and ethical guidance. We do. The District’s law firm, Schenk Price Smith and King, is one of the leading education law firms in the state, with expertise in the legal and ethical obligations of school boards and school board members.”