Ethical Educator

Reconsideration of a Hire
School Administrator, September 2019

Scenario: After a recent board meeting where several hires were approved in the consent agenda, a board member followed up with the superintendent about a groundskeeper appointment. This hire was a boyfriend of the HR director’s daughter and had a felony conviction while a minor. The superintendent was aware of his background, but the board member was not and felt it was a breach of trust. He wanted the boyfriend fired and called for dismissal of the HR director, saying he had lost all trust.

Meira Levinson: 
The HR director should have been upfront with the school board about potential conflicts of interest in any hiring recommendation. Because it is the board rather than the superintendent that must sign off on all hires, the board has a right to know about even the appearance of an ethics violation. Transparency helps to stave off loss of trust not only by the board but also by parents, students and citizens in the district. The HR director also should have consulted the district’s or city’s ethics board, which could have issued a ruling about whether the hiring recommendation violated conflict of interest standards or not.

It is less clear how the groundskeeper’s prior conviction is known to the participants, or relevant to the case. Because he was convicted as a minor, his record would presumably have been sealed and in many jurisdictions eventually expunged. Under these circumstances, it would be irresponsible (and perhaps illegal?) to reveal the job candidate’s juvenile record to the school board. 

Furthermore, it is often ethically inappropriate to hold a person’s actions—even felony convictions—against them once they have paid their debt to society. School districts in particular should take a developmental stance toward the adults in their employ, not just toward students.  If the felony conviction were relatively recent and of a nature that would lead one to be concerned about the man being around children, then I could understand the board member’s concern. But I assume that if this were the case (for example, if the groundskeeper is now 19 years old, and had been convicted of statutory rape or assault and battery at age 17), then neither the HR director nor the superintendent would have gone forward with the hiring recommendation in the first place.
Max McGee:
A sound rule of effective governance is “trust is a must.” In this case, it is the board member who should not be trusted. Had this board member done his homework, he would have seen the groundskeeper’s name on the consent agenda and made his concerns known before the meeting or even at the meeting. Apparently, someone shared the information about the groundskeeper with the board member through back channels, and in that case, he should have directed the complainant to communicate with the superintendent. Circumventing communication protocols is one of the quickest ways to erode trust, and the superintendent should immediately share his concern with the board member and the board president.

As for how to proceed, the superintendent should review the hiring process with the board member. If the HR director did follow the process, the superintendent needs to remind the board member that an individual member cannot fire, hire or discipline a staff member and suggest they meet with the board president to review the process. If the HR director did not follow the process, the superintendent should take some corrective action of progressive discipline and inform the board of what he had to do and why.
Maggie Lopez:
If the board member has lost all trust, it should be in the communication between the superintendent and the board as opposed to the HR director. Although it is the superintendent’s job to determine who to bring forward for hire, it is prudent to have an established communication protocol when items that are politically and legally charged are coming to the board for approval. There should be no surprises for the superintendent or the board before or after a board meeting on issues discussed and voted on. 

The superintendent will need to inform the rest of the board of this board member’s concerns and demands and create a forum for discussion. One way to clear the air is for the superintendent to meet with the entire board through an executive session under personnel matters to discuss his recommendation for this hire. The superintendent may want to include the HR director and legal counsel. The superintendent can clarify the hiring recommendation to the entire board and offer a rationale for the hiring. Perhaps the groundskeeper’s record was expunged since he was a minor. Discussion on applying conflict of interest policies used during the hiring process could clarify the concern about the employee’s connection to the HR director’s daughter. Review of these items with the board hopefully will garner understanding and support for the superintendent’s recommendation for hiring. Best hope is that once information has been clarified, the board member will back off of his demands and feel more comfortable with the hire.

If for some reason the superintendent discovers that the hiring process was violated and in fact this employee should not have been brought forward for approval, then there will have to be decisions made on how to rescind the job offer. In this event, it would also require the superintendent to determine next steps in addressing the decisions the HR Director is making regarding hiring practices and protocols followed. The board has to be able to trust the superintendent with bringing forward correct and accurate hiring recommendations. Whatever the outcome, it is not one board member’s job to be telling the superintendent whom to fire.

Shelley Berman:

At times, school district personnel as well as board of education members can have an inappropriate and undue influence on hiring decisions that are made based on personal advantage, personal relationships, or direct nepotism. Such behavior is not only ethically problematic; it compromises the organization’s capabilities and undermines public trust. 

However, there are significant factors to consider in this case. The superintendent was aware of the candidate’s background and his connection to the HR director, yet believed it was still appropriate to hire the individual as a groundskeeper. The board member should respect the superintendent’s judgment and not jump to conclusions, but rather ask questions to clarify the individual’s qualifications as well as the hiring process used. 

In terms of the felony conviction, the individual was a minor at the time; those records are generally sealed and subject to a statutory time limit for job consideration. The felony could have been relatively minor, such as property damage or disorderly conduct that reflected juvenile behavior and should not be considered now that the individual has met the legal consequences for his offense. The important question is whether the conviction in any way diminishes his ability as an adult to handle the responsibilities of the position.

As for the appointee’s relationship to the HR director, the district’s hiring process should have been designed to eliminate any personal bias on the part of the director. Typically, the hiring for a position such as groundskeeper would at a minimum involve interviews by a grounds supervisor as well as a facilities and grounds director. If the individual emerged as the best candidate based on an independent and unbiased process, then the HR director is accepting the recommendation of administrators in the field rather than imposing his or her own judgment. In this case, it appears that the HR director was sufficiently concerned about both the individual’s background and the relationship to the director to make the superintendent aware of the hiring circumstances and to receive the superintendent’s support and recommendation to the board. Although the individual hired was not technically immediate family, it may have been better if the HR director had assigned an assistant or another individual to oversee this hiring process so as to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. 

Given the confidentiality around juvenile convictions, it isn’t clear if the board member’s knowledge of the conviction reflects some personal involvement or connection, which would make it even more important that the board member refrain from rash judgments or actions. The superintendent should meet with the board member to clarify the standards regarding both juvenile convictions and the hiring process. The superintendent should further meet with the HR director to verify that hiring processes in the district meet both functional and ethical standards and then ensure that all board members are knowledgeable about these processes.

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.; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.