HEA Pushes Back on Hillsborough School Board Incumbents’ Criticisms | #Education

An open letter to Hillsborough voters:

As the chair of the Hillsborough Education Association’s Board of Education screening committee, I am writing to express my disappointment with the recent joint statement from three incumbent members of the Board of Education who employed inflammatory rhetoric and mischaracterized a number of things about the process the committee utilized. 

On Aug. 22, we emailed the six candidates inviting them to participate in our screening process that would culminate in possible endorsements. We provided a 10-question survey to be completed by Aug.28 and let them know there would also be a live interview to be conducted over Zoom.

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The three challengers responded to the surveys before our deadline. The day that the responses were due, Judy Haas emailed letting us know she wouldn’t be participating in the process because of “serious ethical issues (real and perceived) for school board members.”

The other two incumbents did not respond to the invitation, so I sent a follow-up email letting them know they could still participate in the virtual interviews that we were planning to hold on Sept. 8. On Sept. 2, Lorraine Soisson responded with an email that closed with “I am not willing to participate in a process that can be selectively sampled or skewed and where the result might undermine the effectiveness of the board members who do participate.” I never heard from Ann Harris.

The incumbents were under no obligation to participate in the process, but neither was the HEA obligated to alter or abandon its approach because of lack of participation. Voters are free to weigh our endorsements as they see fit. We made no secret of the lack of participation of the incumbents. That’s directly stated in our press release about the endorsements.

In their public letter, the incumbents assert there was a biased selection process (something Dr. Soisson seemed inclined to believe at the outset based on her language). Although members of the committee might have had individual opinions going into the process, something that is unavoidable, as chair of the committee I took my responsibility with the utmost seriousness.

I bent over backwards to always use neutral language in public messaging with the candidates, in private conversations with interested parties, and in all communications and deliberations of the committee. Emails sent to the candidates were identical. All had the same opportunities to be heard. The questionnaires they were provided were identical. The one area of variation was that although we had scripted questions for the live interviews, as chair of the committee I inserted a few follow-up questions where I felt the answers needed some elaboration.

After the interviews were conducted, there was a lengthy conversation that tackled pros and cons of various candidates. There was some debate among the committee members about candidate endorsements before a consensus was reached. At no time did anyone ever suggest how another member of the committee should vote.

In their letter, the incumbents criticized the written questionnaire for not asking “any questions about candidates’ backgrounds and qualifications.” Had they participated in the online interview, they would have known that was the first question asked of the candidates. The committee wanted to hear candidates offer a natural response rather than cut and paste a resume or pore over exact phrasing. Although the written answers were useful, in my personal opinion the live interviews were more helpful in getting a sense of the candidates’ goals and motivations. 

Regarding the incumbents’ focus on ethical issues and potential conflicts of interest, we consulted an authority:, the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA).

That’s the governing body for all New Jersey boards of education, including Hillsborough’s. On their Frequently Asked Questions page about school board elections, the NJSBA clearly states that local school employees’ unions can, in fact, endorse candidates. In the interest of full disclosure, it states: “Yes, however accepting such an endorsement may restrict the candidate’s ability to participate fully in certain discussions and votes of the board of education.”

While it’s true that conflicts of interest could arise, the incumbents fail to mention that recent BOE members have had conflicts due to being currently employed as educators, members of the New Jersey Education Association, or married to employees of the district.

Ultimately it’s up to the voters to decide whether potential conflicts of candidates are deal breakers, not three members of the Board running for re-election.

Furthermore, according to the state’s School Ethics Commission, “endorsement of a candidate by a local and/or statewide union does not create a per se future conflict unless a financial contribution is given and is intended to influence the board member in the discharge of his/her duties as a board member. Legitimate political activity, without any greater involvement (such as a campaign contribution intended to influence a board member in the discharge of his/her duties), does not violate the Act, and does not create a per se conflict under the Act.”

The characterization that the candidates would automatically be hamstrung by an HEA endorsement is countered by authoritative guidelines from the state.

The First Amendment’s guarantees of speech and assembly allow organizations like the HEA to express opinions on public policy, including elections. It requires a lot of cynicism to assume that every political endorsement equates to candidates being beholden to their endorsers. Had the HEA chosen to endorse all six candidates, would the position of the incumbents be that everyone would then be conflicted?

Link to Letter to the Editor from Hillsborough School Board candidates:




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