During last week’s Board of Education meeting, Board President Thomas Kluepfel announced that he and other board members were exonerated on ethics charges brought against them last year regarding funds they donated to the litigation against a local charter school.
For several years, the school board had been involved in litigation with the New Jersey Department of Education over their allowing the Hoboken Dual Language Charter School (HoLa) to expand. The school board majority said that the city’s three charter schools were taking away resources and money from the public schools.
But some residents in town, including the mayor, thought the board should not continue to spend taxpayers’ money to fight the battle, especially after they lost the initial rounds of litigation. When that happened, several board members funded appeals with their own money (including Kluepfel, even though he had founded one of the city’s three charter schools).
The Board of Education lost the latest round in June when a state appellate panel of judges found that — contrary to public school officials’ claims — there was no evidence of socio-economic impact or an adverse funding impact to the Hoboken district from HoLa’s expansion to eighth grade.
The complainant, a resident who has not held a public office in town, stated that Kluepfel and board members Jennifer Evans and Irene Sobolov, as well as former Trustee Dr. Leon Gold, failed to abstain from voting on the continued litigation despite their funding the suit. The complainant charged that this was a violation of several sections of the School Ethics Act.
The School Ethics Commission dismissed several of the complainant’s charges, and reviewed and ruled on one of the alleged violations.
The section of the act in questions states, “No school official shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he, a member of his immediate family, or a business organization in which he has an interest, 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 or a member of his immediate family has a personal involvement that is or creates some benefit to the school official or member of his immediate family.”
The complainant alleged that the trustees failed to recuse themselves on a Feb. 9, 2016 vote on a resolution regarding whether the board should continue its litigation against NJDOE. The complainant says that because they donated personal funds to the litigation, they should have abstained from voting.
The complainant alleged that the members had a “direct or indirect financial involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair their objectivity or independence from judgment,” according to the School Ethics Commissions ruling. But the board members said that while they did donate to the Hoboken Legal Fund, this did not create a conflict of interest.
They argued that the act of donating money is protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution.
They also argued that they could not benefit financially or personally by voting to continue the litigation against HoLa’s expansion, as the funds were donated specifically into the legal fund and they could not direct the board on how the funds could be used. They additionally argued that their donations did not impair their objectivity because the donations were made to a cause “championed by the board, as evidenced by the litigation and creation of the Hoboken Legal Fund before they made their donations.”
No violation found
The School Ethics Commission ruled that the four had committed no violations.
“The commission agrees with the respondents that because their donations were earmarked for a specific purpose, namely the litigation related to the expansion of HoLa, they could not benefit, personally or financially, from voting to continue the litigation,” stated the ruling. “Further at the time respondent made their respective donations, they relinquished control of its use, and also forfeited any right to recoup these monies. As such, no personal or financial benefit could inure to any respondent by voting to continued the litigation.”
The ruling additionally states that it “finds compelling the fact that long before the donations were made by respondents and accepted by the board, the board vehemently opposed the expansion of Hola and, in this regard, initially authorized litigation to contest the expansion. The interest in the continued litigation was, therefore, the board’s and not an individual respondents, personal interest.”
During his address to the board and public, Kluepfel said that he and the other trustees in question could not speak about the ethics complaint before.
“From the onset we were instructed by the ethics commission not to discuss the matter publicly and I refrained from doing so,” said Kluepfel. “I think all of us followed that instruction, but now the decision has been published and it is a matter of public record.”
“The commission found no ethics violations whatsoever on the part of Mrs. Evans, Mrs. Sobolv, Dr. Gold or me and in the commission’s words, ‘the matter is now dismissed’,” said Kluepfel.
Kluepfel declined to comment on the issue further.
Irene Sobolov said, “I’m happy that that’s over. I am happy that we were, I guess, exonerated, I don’t know if exonerated is the right word, but I’m glad they found there were no violations at all.”
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.