Ethical Educator

Cleaning Out a 'Rats' Nest'
School Administrator, August 2017

Scenario: A superintendent, newly hired, is presented evidence of employee malfeasance among central-office staffers. He takes the matter to his board, which collectively says: “Fire those dumb sh*ts. Fire ’em. We’ve never had a superintendent who could stand up and do it. We’ve known these were problem people for a lot of reasons. Everybody knows they’re a problem. We’ll stand with you.” The superintendent agrees to tell all four the next morning, “I’m going to fire you or you’re quitting,” but only after asking the board, “I expect your support no matter who calls you or what the circumstances are. Everybody agree to that?” Should the superintendent proceed?

Sarah Jerome:
When a superintendent discovers wrongdoing among employees, it is appropriate to investigate thoroughly. It is also important to provide an opportunity for the accused to have due process.
If the superintendent determines the wrongdoing is deliberate and warrants appropriate consequences, the next step is to determine what those appropriate consequences are. Depending on the severity of the offenses, dismissal may be the appropriate consequence. In fact, referral to the police also may be appropriate.

Having board support in this action is comforting and perhaps reassuring to the newly hired superintendent, but if the investigation reveals laws being broken by the offenders, the superintendent should proceed no matter whether he has board support. The superintendent must uphold the law and sets an example by his action of courageous and ethical behavior — an example that will be noticed by all employees. 
Maggie Lopez:
The superintendent should not proceed. He needs to take a step back and determine the legitimacy of the allegations presented to him regarding these employees. He needs to inform the board that he will further check into the matter and return to them with information and a recommendation. 

A thorough review of the data is a first step. Questions he should pursue include: What actions are being identified as malfeasance? Were district policies and laws were broken by the employees identified? Is involvement of law enforcement needed? What due process steps were implemented? Were legal and policy protocols followed during investigation of these employees? Does legal counsel concur with the decision to dismiss?

After these steps have been taken, the superintendent should meet with the board with clear, conclusive information and a recommendation. The superintendent has previously approached the board and, in essence, put them in the driver’s seat, an action he will need to correct. The superintendent will to be clear and direct in ensuring they understand their role with regard to personnel matters. This is the time for the superintendent to talk with the board regarding boundaries and roles. This will be a difficult conversation if the recommendation from the superintendent is not to dismiss. The superintendent’s actions and response to this situation will set the tone for his superintendency. 
Meira Levinson:
I’m unsure what the dilemma is because the superintendent seems to be calling all the shots here with the board’s explicit backing. Should the superintendent fire these staffers? From the evidence we’re given, the answer is clearly “yes.” They’ve committed malfeasance for years on end. The board also wants them gone. Get them out of there.

Where the dilemma seems to arise is for the school board. If the question is, “Should the board agree to the superintendent’s demands?” I think the answer must be no. Asking for support “no matter what the circumstances are” is too broad a request.  School boards should generally support the superintendent, but they should not promise to serve as rubber stamps.

These central-office staffers are truly awful and should be dismissed, and the board should back up the superintendent as he acts to do so. But the superintendent also must follow appropriate employment law and treat even terrible employees with dignity, and the board must retain its independence to ensure that occurs.

Shelley Berman:

This is not the way a superintendent should handle personnel matters. The first step, after being presented with evidence, is to pursue a thorough and fair investigation, preferably consulting with the district’s attorney to ensure the process and the investigative findings will enable the superintendent to take disciplinary action. The superintendent needs to verify the involvement of each of the four individuals and any others who may be implicated. He needs solid evidence that, if challenged in a hearing or in court, will substantiate the personnel decisions made. He also needs to give each individual an opportunity to present his or her case in their own defense. In a district with a human resources department, the investigation should be primarily handled by the human resources director so the superintendent can remain neutral and hear the case if there is an appeal of the HR director’s decision.

In general, school boards should not be involved in personnel matters. However, in situations that will be politically charged or publicly controversial and may have serious consequences for the district, boards need to be informed of actions being taken. Only after the superintendent has made a determination based on the investigation should he inform the board of the actions he plans to take. It is helpful if the board supports him, but if the malfeasance was serious, the superintendent bears a legal and ethical responsibility to take the necessary personnel actions with or without the support of the board. To do otherwise is to compromise his standing and potentially his employment.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Sarah Jerome, a retired superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill., and an AASA past president; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; and Maggie Lopez, interim superintendent, Eagle County, Colo.