With the election of John Barton to the Brick Township Board of Education on Tuesday, a majority of board members will have conflicts of interest come Jan. 8, when the board reorganizes with its new member.
The conflicts would normally preclude the four board members from voting on contractual and some personnel matters in the district, but ironically, under what is known as the “doctrine of necessity,” even those board members who are conflicted may play a part in such proceedings because without their participation, the board would be unable to vote on major district policy decisions such as teacher contracts.
Barton, 56, is a teacher in the Jackson Township school district and his wife is a teacher in Brick. While teachers may serve on boards of education in their home town – provided they work in different school district – they are normally precluded from voting on teacher contracts and similar matters due to the conflict of being a fellow unionized teacher. Three other board members – Frank Pannucci, Jr., John Talty and Michael Conti – have relatives working in the district, another conflict due to the fact that they would be voting on their relatives’ salaries, or the employment status of their supervisors or subordinates.
The doctrine of necessity is “one of the most ironic concepts in school law,” wrote attorney Jonathan M. Busch in a 2011 article on the concept in School Leader, a publication put out by the New Jersey School Boards Association. “It may only be invoked if too many members cannot vote, and as a result, all of them may.”
The doctrine dates back to 1938, Busch wrote, after conflicted members of the South Amboy city council were unable to vote on matters of important municipal business. The concept has evolved over the years, and is now limited to situations where a quorum of board members are conflicted. In Brick Township, the quorum for a public meeting is four members.
The most significant scenario under which the doctrine of necessity would have to be invoked in Brick would be the ratification of a contract with the Brick Township Education Association. Though the three non-conflicted members of the board – Sharon Cantillo, Karyn Cusanelli and Susan Suter – could form a negotiating committee, four board members would be required to vote to accept or turn down the negotiated contract. Under the doctrine of necessity, all four conflicted members would be eligible to vote.
Invoking the doctrine of necessity is a relatively simple process, though it can translate into otherwise simple votes becoming more time consuming than they normally would. According to Busch’s article, conflicted boards must draft a resolution stating the reasons why invocation of the doctrine is necessary and the specific conflicts inherent to each board member, read the resolution at a public meeting, physically post a notice for a period of 30 days where other legal notices are posted, and provide the state School Ethics Commission with a copy of the resolution.
The resolutions must also be filed with the Ocean County Executive Superintendent of Schools.