DOVER — The Delaware Senate on Thursday passed legislation to close loopholes in state law that allows people convicted of crimes against children to run for a seat on their local school boards and permits sitting school board members to remain in office after being charged with a crime against a child.
Senate Substitute 2 for Senate Bill 78 would require school board candidates to undergo the same background check currently required of all Delaware educators and allow the Department of Elections to disqualify candidates based on those findings.
The bill also would require the suspension of a sitting school board member charged with a disqualifying crime and their removal from office if convicted.
“School boards exist to help our district and charter schools improve the lives of children and should be reflective of their communities,” Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Woodbrook, chair of the Senate Education Committee and lead sponsor of SS 2, said in a prepared statement.
“The idea that someone with a record of harming children could run for a school board seat or continue to hold that office even after being charged with such a heinous crime is unconscionable,” she said. “While it is upsetting that we now live in a world where we have to even consider these possibilities, we cannot go another day knowing there is currently little that can be done once these cases come up. I want to thank my colleagues in the Senate for taking action today to close these loopholes once and for all.”
Under current law in Delaware, school boards can censure members and even call for their resignation, but only the governor has the power to remove them from office.
The lack of an automatic mechanism for suspending or removing a school board member accused of misconduct became apparent in late 2019, when Colonial School Board member Ronnie C. Williams was charged with sexually assaulting multiple children just months after his election to a five-year term. Although he ceased participating as a school board member following his arrest, he did not resign until late 2020. A new school board member was elected to fill the remainder of his term Tuesday.
SS2 would stipulate that any school board member charged with a violent felony, a felony against a child or a misdemeanor offense involving bribery, improper influence or abuse of office is immediately and automatically suspended from their official duties until their criminal case is resolved.
The legislation also would require the governor to remove from office any sitting school board member who has been convicted of those crimes, while allowing a school board member to return to duty if the charges are resolved in his or her favor.
“School board members play a critical role in the education of our children and are in a position of trust, and with that comes responsibilities. To have a situation where such a person could have committed a crime against children and then craft policy affecting or be in contact with young students is untenable,” Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, the bill’s lead House sponsor, said in a prepared statement. “This bill restores public trust that a candidate for school board has not committed an offense against children, and that a board member charged with such a crime is not in a position to weigh in on policy. This is a minimum standard we should have for Delaware’s school board members.”
The product of numerous discussions with parent groups, educators and various state agencies, the law would apply equally to the state Board of Education and all local school board members, regardless of whether they are elected or appointed to boards that govern school districts, charter schools or vocational-technical school districts.
“The Delaware School Boards Association has worked closely with Senators and Representatives to develop SS2 for SB 78 in an effort to assure the highest levels of accountability for school board members and to protect the students and staff in Delaware’s public schools,” John Marinucci, executive director of the DSBA, said in a prepared statement. “We strongly support this bill and offer our sincere gratitude to the lawmakers and staff who have been instrumental in developing and supporting SS2 to SB 78.”
The legislation now heads to the House for consideration.