Criminal Background Check Law Leaves Some School Board Members in Limbo

John Mooney | January 5, 2012 | Education
Missing the year-end deadline makes members 'ineligible' but not 'disqualified'

Scores of school board members have missed the cutoff date for a new law requiring local school board members to undergo criminal background checks, leaving themselves — and to some degree their boards — in a kind of administrative limbo.

According to the state and the New Jersey School Boards Association, more than 300 out of nearly 5,300 board members and charter school trustees statewide did not meet the December 31 deadline to register and complete the background check. They have been stripped of their elected or appointed positions, as the law requires.

“There are no exceptions for board members/trustees to continue to serve without having submitted to the criminal history record check,” said a statement from the state Department of Education yesterday.

But whether board members will be reinstated once they’ve submitted to the background check is unclear.

“We don’t know that yet,” said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the School Boards Association.

Enacted last spring amid some controversy, the law had elected officials rushing to meet the year-end deadline. As of October, thousands had not yet registered, and state and association officials launched an unprecedented campaign to notify them.

Still, the law did end the school board careers of at least a dozen members, permanently disqualified for having a conviction on their records, according to the data provided by the association. There is no appeal provision in the law, other than to the accuracy of the records.

The law disqualifies board members or trustees who have been convicted of any of a long list of felonies or other crimes at any point in their adult lives, including most violent or drug-related offenses. It is similar to a law in place for school employees.

In a lengthy statement, the department made a distinction between those “disqualified” from serving due to past convictions, and those now “ineligible” due to not completing the background check.

“Any school board member who did not submit to a criminal history background check by December 31 is ineligible to serve on the board,” said the statement from Richard Vespucci, a department spokesman.

“The term disqualified is used for those with convictions on their criminal history record,” it continued. “We need to confirm and reconfirm those that are not eligible before we send the final notices to have them cease serving in the position of board member/trustee. We have been working on that list for several days.”

The uncertainty has the state association itself scrambling to determine what to do next in when guiding its own members. Belluscio said he did not think it would disrupt the operation of any boards, since ineligible members are likely distributed widely across the approximately 600 state school boards.

“I don’t think this affects a majority [of members] on any boards,” he said.

He also said those deemed ineligible could still likely be appointed to fill their own vacancies until they complete the background check and found eligible.

The following data was provided by the state as of Tuesday, the association said:

  • 4,513 board members submitted to the criminal history record check, out of 4,702 currently serving;
  • 4,109 board members completed criminal history record check so far, with results for the balance still pending;
  • Nine board members disqualified due to prior convictions;
  • 432 school trustees submitted to the criminal history record check, out of 597 trustees currently serving;
  • 331 trustees completed criminal history record check; and
  • Three trustees disqualified due to prior convictions.