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Conflicts of interest shouldn’t be allowed on school boards

April 16, 2012
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

There ought to be a rule barring anyone from being on a school board if they have a blatant conflict of interest, such as a close family member employed by the district - certainly if it's an employee with whom they share household income.

Yet this happens all the time. It seems like every community's school board has one or two or three members who are married to district employees. By virtue of being in the same household, these board members personally benefit from the wages and benefits they have some control over. They vote on and could potentially negotiate contracts with their school district's employee unions, and they have power over budgets. They have power to sway decisions toward their own benefit, such as if those employees get the pay and benefits they're asking for, or if they don't have to make sacrifices when times get hard fiscally.

It's a clear ethical violation, but no ethics code or rule prohibits them from doing it. That's wrong.

These people bring valuable talent, experience and points of view to the board table, no doubt, and we can't name a specific incident in which employee-wedded board members gave away the farm to the unions. We've seen some of them abstain from votes on employee contracts and not take part in negotiations.

On the other hand, the public doesn't know what goes on behind the closed-door conversations and emails between just two or three board members and school administrators.

What we do know is that these board members have a bias toward employee comfort. If they struggle to overcome that bias, in order to be fair, that's good, but other board members don't have that tilt.

Plus, how useful is a board member who sits out of decisions involving employee contracts and budgets? That's the meat of the job.

In many other professions, like journalism and law, there are rules to prevent conflicts of interest. For many other types of boards, it is a standard clause in their bylaws to prohibit members who are directly related to employees of the agency the board oversees. Yet such violations continue unabated in our school districts, where the stakes are higher than usual due to the huge amounts of tax money involved and the fact that they're educating our young people, preparing them to inherit our world. Of all boards, schools' should have some of the highest ethical standards.

Granted, voters have some control over this already, yet they regularly elect school board members with relatives working for the schools. We don't know why. Is it because a disproportionate number of school employees vote in these elections and rally around their colleagues' kin - thereby putting their own fans on the other side of the negotiating table? Some say so, but we can't prove it. Or is it because voters truly don't think this is such a big deal, and they elect the people they like best? Could it be a little of each?

Another factor, we're quite sure, is that few people run for school board. These board members get no compensation, no praise and lots of grief. Plus, the subject matter is complicated; it's dangerously easy for a board member to leave it to the administrative experts and wonder what he or she is really needed for.

Yeah, it's a tough job, but that's because it's an important one.

Until such a rule comes about, we urge potential candidates to not run if they have a potential conflict of interest, and we urge voters to pass over such candidates on principle.



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