David Cummings’ Collaboration With Michelle Fine’s Attacks May Represent Multiple Violations of New Jersey’s School Board Ethics Code

We recently reported on records that were released through a public records request showing that Montclair school board member David Cummings was plotting with scandal-plagued activist/antagonist Michelle Fine behind the scenes to attack district leadership – including the district’s then-Superintendent.

As we reported then, in one email:

Cummings then wrote: “There may be something here to consider. When she discusses cuts, but increases central staff.” Presumably Cummings is referring to MacCormack, and he’s trying to relate the Ramapo’s BOE favoritism/spending to something about MacCormack and the Central Office staff (we’ve already debunked MCAS’s claims of big increases in Central Office staff size and spending in a previous post).

This email is particularly troubling, as it shows Cummings coordinating with Fine and suggesting issues for her to use to attack the district. And lo and behold, the very next day, MCAS sent out a their digest to supporters, making exactly the same point – arguing that classroom cuts are linked to supposed central office increases.

And in another:

That’s a real problem there, with Cummings coordinating these (false) attacks with Fine, and providing the ammo for her political attacks.

And of course there’s this exchange, with Fine and Cummings discussing strategy around opt-out. Fine replies “happy Halloween – get rid of the witches and let’s return to the fun,” presumably a reference to their effort to run McCormack out of town:

While the Montclair Times has begun reporting on these emails, it has strangely ignored these exchanges thus far. And that’s problematic, because these exchanges should be big news. They represent violations of the New Jersey Code of Ethics for School Board Members, and should be grounds for an ethics complaint against Cummings – if they aren’t enough to prompt his immediate resignation.

Here’s the code of ethics:

18A:12-24.1 Code of Ethics for School Board Members

A school board member shall abide by the following Code of Ethics for School Board Members:

  1. I will uphold and enforce all laws, rules and regulations of the State Board of Education, and court orders pertaining to schools.  Desired changes shall be brought about only through legal and ethical procedures.

  2. I will make decisions in terms of the educational welfare of children and will seek to develop and maintain public schools that meet the individual needs of all children regardless of their ability, race, creed, sex, or social standing.

  3. I will confine my board action to policy making, planning, and appraisal, and I will help to frame policies and plans only after the board has consulted those who will be affected by them.

  4. I will carry out my responsibility, not to administer the schools, but, together with my fellow board members, to see that they are well run.

  5. I will recognize that authority rests with the board of education and will make no personal promises nor take any private action that may compromise the board.

  6. I will refuse to surrender my independent judgment to special interest or partisan political groups or to use the schools for personal gain or for the gain of friends.

  7. I will hold confidential all matters pertaining to the schools which, if disclosed, would needlessly injure individuals or the schools.  In all other matters, I will provide accurate information and, in concert with my fellow board members, interpret to the staff the aspirations of the community for its school.

  8. I will vote to appoint the best qualified personnel available after consideration of the recommendation of the chief administrative officer.

  9. I will support and protect school personnel in proper performance of their duties.

  10. I will refer all complaints to the chief administrative officer and will act on the complaints at public meetings only after failure of an administrative solution.

By our count, these and other emails show Cummings in violation of at least five different parts of the code of ethics, and most clearly in violation of section (i).

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the code of ethics violations these emails suggest Cummings may have committed:

a. I will uphold and enforce all laws, rules and regulations of the State Board of Education, and court orders pertaining to schools.  Desired changes shall be brought about only through legal and ethical procedures.

Despite this requirement, the emails show Cummings plotting behind the scenes to bring public pressure on the board – through the kind of scurrilous attacks Fine has led. This is probably a bit iffy and would depend on whether there’s more information about Cummings involvement than has been disclosed.

d. I will carry out my responsibility, not to administer the schools, but, together with my fellow board members, to see that they are well run.

Both in the emails mentioned before and in other newly released emails posted by Montclair Kids First, Cummings crosses this line. We haven’t had a chance to review all of those emails yet, but he is called out on it by district administrators more than once.

e. I will recognize that authority rests with the board of education and will make no personal promises nor take any private action that may compromise the board.

This is a clear violation, with Cummings acting behind the back of the rest of the board to try and influence policy by executing these plots with Fine.

f. I will refuse to surrender my independent judgment to special interest or partisan political groups or to use the schools for personal gain or for the gain of friends.

Cummings coordination with Fine and her MCAS crowd clearly meets this threshold, and shows that Cummings has failed to act in an independent way, and is instead acting on behalf of these special interests.

i. I will support and protect school personnel in proper performance of their duties.

This is the clearest violation of all. Rather than supporting the district’s Superintendent, Cummings plotted with Fine on ways to undermine and oust her.

All told, we count several demonstrated violations of the ethics code by Cummings – more than enough reason for him to be removed from his position. Across several different fronts, Cummings has been an embarrassment as appointee for Mayor Jackson, and the mayor should put an end to it, and remove him immediately.

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