HILLSIDE — Hillside resident and county Democratic chair Charlotte DeFilippo filed a school ethics complaint against the superintendent of schools last week, saying it is a conflict for him to serve as a local council member at the same time.
The school ethics commission complaint, obtained by LocalSource, maintained there are conflicts of interest involved that could impact the financial condition of the school district and township.
“A superintendent of schools must make decisions and recommendations about the school budget based upon the education needs of the students without the conflicting concern that a proposal to raise taxes could negatively affect his re-election to or public perception of the council,” the complaint charged.
Schools Superintendent Frank Deo, a longtime member of the school district who previously served as a teacher, school social worker, principal and director of special services, was hit with the ethics complaint last week by DeFilippo, Democratic political powerhouse and Hillside resident.
Last week when reached for comment, DeFilippo was not interested in discussing whether the school ethics complaint had anything to do with the fact that Deo, a former Democratic party member, switched allegiance to Mayor Joe Menza and is up for re-election.
“I’ve known Frank all my life and I have nothing against him,” she said, adding that she was “really upset that Frank is being held hostage by the mayor.”
“The bottom line is that you can’t serve two masters at the same time,” DeFilippo said.
Deo, on the other hand, steered clear of waging a political battle with the Democratic chair.
“I’m surprised the complaint was filed now since I received attorney advice that there was no conflict when I was appointed as superintendent of schools in March 2012,” the superintendent said when asked Friday about the matter.
Deo declined to speculate on why DeFilippo decided to file the complaint at this point in time, a year after he was appointed superintendent. However, Deo’s term as a Hillside council member is up this year, which means the seat is up for grabs.
Deo did not say whether he is running for re-election or not, but was willing to explain his view of the dual position he assumed a year ago.
“I was elected as a council person and feel an obligation to the people who elected me to finish my term,” he said, adding that he does not view holding the two positions as a conflict, but rather “as a way to foster much needed cooperation between the township and board of education.”
“For example, we have embarked on a joint effort to open gyms for student recreation as a true shared service,” Deo explained, mentioning again that prior to being appointed superintendent he sought legal advice on whether this was a conflict and was told it was not.
“I was and still am serving as a township council person. The township council is a part-time position. All the sitting council members have or are retired from full-time positions, some in county government. My full-time position happens to be superintendent,” he added.
DeFilippo, though, felt differently, pointing out that after waiting a year she decided “someone was being shortchanged.”
“How are you going to vote on anything? This is about being fair. We did considerable research and so far we haven’t been able to get a copy of any letter his attorney provided saying this is not a conflict of interest,” the county Democratic Chairman said.
DeFilippo’s 10-page school ethics complaint, filed with the State Department of Education, maintained Deo’s loyalties and duties as superintendent and council member conflict because members of council are concerned with ensuring township taxes remain as low as possible.
“Although the superintendent also must be mindful of the tax levy, his primary responsibility is to ensure the township’s school-aged children receive a thorough and efficient education,” the complaint said. “Certainly, the public reasonably could perceive that Dr. Deo’s role as a member of council impairs his decision making as superintendent.”
As council person, DeFilippo said, Deo could support spending school district funds that would lessen pressure on the municipal budget. And as superintendent, Deo could support reliance on municipal services in order to dedicate school district monies to implement certain programs.
The complaint cited multiple examples of this, including garbage and recycling services, which the township provides to the school district without cost, as well as a DARE program, public works service, gasoline and diesel fuel and pot hole repairs to school grounds.
Of considerable concern to DeFilippo was that the township is responsible for allocating a percentage of tax revenue to the school board, which could cause a problem in the future. Especially because it has in the past.
For example, in 2006 the board alleged council had “misappropriated” certain tax relief state Abbott Bordered District Aid in 2006, reducing the Hillside school district base tax levy by $1.5 million.
The complaint further charged that Deo was engaging in a professional activity that is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties as superintendent.
“Dr. Deo is using his official position to secure unwarranted privileges, advantages or employment for others,” the complaint said, mentioning the superintendent has a “prohibited financial and personal interest in a service which might reasonably be expected to prejudice his independence of judgement in the exercise of his official duties as superintendent.”
The complaint cited several examples of this, noting, for example, that on Nov. 19, 2012, Deo and the school board business administrator attended a meeting with the mayor to review false alarm fines that totaled $11,375.
Apparently Deo and business administrator Kenneth Weinheimer wanted a reduction in those fines, but this could only take place if council took formal action to revise the applicable ordinance.
“In doing so Dr. Deo participated in a negotiation with the council while serving as both council person and superintendent,” the complaint said, mentioning that Deo used his official position “to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for the board.”
Whether DeFilippo’s allegations are direct violations of the school ethics commission’s conflict of interest standards is a cloudy area.
According to information obtained from the commission, “no school official or member of his immediate family shall have an interest in a business organization or professional activity, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of their duties in the public interest.”
One particular standard focuses on employment.
“No school official shall undertake any employment or service, whether compensated or not, which might reasonably be expected to prejudice his independence of judgement in the exercise of his official duties.”
The complaint will be reviewed by the school ethics commission, a nine-member body with the power to issue advisory opinions, receive and retain disclosure statements, conduct investigations, hold hearings and order attendance of witnesses and production of documents as required by the school ethics act.
The school ethics act also sets standards for conflicts of interest, code of ethics for school board members, annual disclosure of employment and financial interests, annual filing of a financial disclosure statement and school board member training requirements.