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Should Teachers' Union Officials Help Approve the Budget?

In New Jersey, it's no longer an open question: A state court has ruled that a senior official in the state teachers' union can't sit on a local school budget panel because of the potential conflict of interest it presents, reports NJ.com.

Sean Spiller, the secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey Education Association and a Montclair, N.J., councilman, was appointed by colleagues on the council to the town's board of school estimates. This is not the actual school board, but a separate panel that reviews and approves the district's budget. 

A local parent group, Montclair Kids First, sued in state court, arguing that Spiller's appointment represented a conflict of interest. As a union official, he had a duty to support the union's priorities, not necessarily taxpayers', the group argued. (Among other charges, for example, the organization contends that Spiller didn't support local efforts to make teacher evaluation and professional development more rigorous.)

In any case, the judge agreed with the organization, meaning Spiller will likely have to step down from the budget panel. But the judge also made a point of noting that there was no evidence that Spiller did anything wrong while serving on the board of school estimates.

Spiller, in a statement, said after the ruling that the debate was a micro-version of the tensions playing themselves out nationally over education policy. "From its outset, this litigation initiated by MKF has been straight out of the right-wing playbook used nationally to disenfranchise voters, vilify teachers and attack public education," according to NJ.com.

There's some interesting additional context here. As a local news site reported, there have been skirmishes between a separate parent group and MKF over education initiatives like the PARCC test. And in the subsequent lawsuit, Montclair Kids First was represented by Shavar Jeffries—who is known for making a recent mayoral bid in Newark, N.J. and who was generally seen as supporting education "reform" efforts more strongly than his opponent (and the eventual victor, Ras Baraka).

One challenge to making sense of this story has to do with its applicability outside of New Jersey. Is it common for senior union officials to sit on various school committees? Has it been challenged elsewhere? (Does anyone know? Does anyone track it?) 

Here in the Washington, D.C. area, there's at least one parallel, though it isn't a direct one. Segun Eubanks, a National Education Association official, is the chairman of the Prince George's County school board (PG County sits just to the east of Washington). But Eubanks isn't an elected union official. He's a staffer at the parent union, not the local NEA affiliate that represents teachers and directly bargains with the school board. And to my knowledge no one's suggested publicly that this arrangement isn't appropriate.

This is a curious story, and I wonder if this ruling could jumpstart similar efforts. If you know of any other arrangements like these, please contact me at [email protected]

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