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NJ Panel Dismisses Ethics Violation Charges against a Montgomery School Board Member, But Says Charges Were Not Frivolous

By Barbara A. Preston | Posted February 1, 2024


The NJ School Ethics Commission dismissed a complaint in January that alleged a Montgomery school board member violated ethics rules by introducing a motion to suspend full-day kindergarten, after Montgomery citizens had voted to approve it.


Montgomery resident Christine Newman had filed the complaint with the School Ethics Commission on May 12, 2023, alleging that Joanna Filak, a member of the Montgomery Township Board of Education, violated New Jersey School Ethics codes by trying to overturn the results of an election.


Filak, in turn, asked the commission find Newman’s complaint to be frivolous, and to impose sanctions. The commission ruled “it could not find evidence that might show that [Newman] filed the complaint in bad faith or solely for the purpose of harassment, delay, or malicious injury.” The commission voted to deny Filak's claim that the complaint was frivolous and deny her request for sanctions against Newman.


Montgomery School District logo.


The incident stems from a motion Filak made at a March 2023 school board meeting, in which she asked to:  “Have a vote in favor of suspending all plans and efforts for full-day kindergarten and the taxes being levied to be stopped and returned until a complete analysis can be performed and debated. Then, if full-day kindergarten is viable on its merits—criteria to be publicly agreed upon—it should be brought out again for a referendum.”


Filak’s motion was shut down prior to a vote by the full board of education when the board attorney essentially pointed out that it’s illegal.


“I listened to the motion that Filak presented and I have a concern about it,” said board attorney Stephen Fogarty. “The motion included not only postponing any expenditure with regard to full day kindergarten, but also would have negated the public vote on the question. We don’t have the legal authority to do that.”


Filak withdrew her motion.


A slightly different story, though, was submitted by Filak to the state Ethics Commission. Filak ”indicated she withdrew her motion after the superintendent committed to making the financial information public,” according to the State Ethics Board document. In fact, Filak withdrew her motion after the Montgomery School Board attorney told her that her motion would overturn the results of an election, and that would be illegal — according to the official video recording of the March 28, 2023 Board of Education meeting.


Montgomery and Rocky Hill voters had narrowly approved adding full-day kindergarten in the school district during the general election on November 8, 2022. Voters passed the referendum by 43 votes according to the Somerset County Clerk Office — 3,892 to 3,849.


Filak said she was concerned that “the information provided to the public regarding full-day kindergarten was inaccurate as it significantly underrepresented the per-household cost of the full-day kindergarten program, and that the [Montgomery Schools] Superintendent [Mary E. McLoughlin] issued a statement apologizing for the error,” according to the Ethics Commission’s recent advisory opinion.


Filak argued that she called for the suspension of full day kindergarten because “she was concerned with the contradictory financial information and, as such, proceeded to make the motion.”


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The Financial Discrepancy

As Filak stated, the information that school administrators initially provided to the public regarding full-day kindergarten was inaccurate. She said the mistake “significantly underrepresented the per-household cost” of the full-day kindergarten program to Montgomery and Rocky Hill taxpayers. 


Superintendent McLoughlin had addressed the discrepancy with the Montgomery and Rocky Hill voters in October and November 2022, prior to the election. McLoughlin had sent an email to parents on October 14, 2022 — saying the tax increase to property owners was mistakenly calculated by the school’s administrators, as follows.


For the average Montgomery Township homeowner, the actual permanent tax increase would be

an extra $201 per year, not the $196 originally communicated. For Rocky Hill, the increase would be $133 per year, not $6


In addition, the average Montgomery homeowner would pay a one-time tax of $83 (not $114); and Rocky Hill homeowners would pay $54 (not $3.60).


School administrators gave a public presentation on the revised calculations at the Board of Education meeting on October 18, 2022. Superintendent McLoughlin also publicly apologized in a newspaper article titled “Monty Full Day Kindergarten to Be More Costly to Taxpayers than Originally Reported” in the November 2022 issue of The Montgomery News, and also posted online.


The mistake was initially uncovered during a town hall on the full day kindergarten initiative, which took place on October 10, 2022. “In response to the questions from community members at our ... town hall, our business administrator went back to review the tax assessment formulas,” McLoughlin said.


The resignation of Business Administrator Alicia Schauer was accepted at the October 18 board meeting. David Palumbo, the assistant board secretary, was appointed to the position of acting board secretary.


“Full Day K” Referendum Remains on the Ballot

School officials decided to keep the referendum on the ballot because, Superintendent McLoughlin explained,“The overall amount requested by the public question remained unchanged: the recurring amount of $1,620,152 and the one-time amount of $669,763.”


“The error was in the proposed tax impact for the Montgomery Township and Rocky Hill Borough municipalities,” she said. The Montgomery School District’s Fiscal Impact statement was posted on the school website at the time, giving detailed information.


Public service announcement.

Montgomery Kindergarten registration

Democracy in Action 

The NJ Ethics Commission notified Filak and Newman on January 23 that “there are insufficient facts and circumstances [pleaded] in [Newman’s] complaint and in the written statement to lead a reasonable person to believe that the act was violated as [pleaded] in the complaint and, consequently, dismisses the … matter [filed against Filak].”


The commission noted that Newman had “not provided a copy of a final decision from any court of law or other administrative agency demonstrating or specifically finding that [Filak] violated a specific law, rule, or regulation when she engaged in any of the acts/conduct set forth in the complaint. Without such a final decision, a violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(a) cannot be substantiated. Therefore, and pursuant to N.J.A.C. 6A:28-9.7(b), the commission dismisses the alleged violation.” 


In addition, the commission voted to find that Newman was not frivolous in filing her complaint, and to deny Filak’s request for sanctions. 


What Is the School Ethics Commission?

Any person may file a complaint with, or request an advisory opinion, from  The School Ethics Commission by submitting an electronic copy of the filing to school.ethics@doe.nj.gov in addition to mailing a hard copy. 


The School Ethics Commission is a nine-member body with the power to issue advisory opinions, receive complaints, receive and retain disclosure statements, conduct investigations, hold hearings, and compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of documents as it may deem necessary to enforce the School Ethics Act.  School Ethics Commission Members are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the Governor.  As of January 2023, the nine-member commission had three vacancies.


Not more than five commission members are from the same political party; two must be school board members, two must be school administrators and five must be persons who are not school officials.


Established in 1992  in the New Jersey Department of Education, the commission holds its meetings every month on the fourth Tuesday, except for the December meeting. Commission meetings are held in the Department of Education Building, 100 Riverview Plaza, First Floor Conference Room, Trenton, New Jersey.  Click here for directions to the Trenton location.


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