Board-Savvy Superintendent

Steering Clear of Conflicts of Interest
By MICHAEL ADAMSON/School Administrator, April 2020

 Michael Adamson
Conflict-of-interest situations, whether real or perceived, create problems at one point or another in most school districts. Some stem from hiring, evaluating, dismissing or reprimanding a board member’s spouse, sibling or child who is also a school employee or securing the services from a business or organization that is owned or operated by a school board member.

In addition, there are conflicts related to school employees directly reporting to a board member’s spouse or other family member in the school district.

Superintendents can get caught up in these predicaments. That was the case in one Indiana town when a school board member who owned an excavation company was hired by the district to install new culverts at the entrances to the school property. The community felt the district had not appropriately considered other providers and that the process was “rigged” in favor of the board member.

In another community, a school board member’s daughter, who also served as the girls’ varsity volleyball coach, was recommended for replacement in favor of another coach. When the contract for the new coach came before the board for approval, the board member, who already had vehemently objected to the replacement, voted against the contract for the new coach. The motion passed 4-1, but it caused a lasting division between that board member and the administration and fellow board members, even though the board member’s daughter soon relocated to another district that offered her a head coaching position.

Defining Conflicts

Iterations of these situations, including many that are much more involved, crop up widely in school communities. All represent conflict-of-interest scenarios that can wreak havoc on superintendent/board/community relationships. However, it is important to distinguish between what we acknowledge as legal conflicts of interests and ethical conflicts. Legal conflicts of interest also challenge the ethical norms of the district, but there are strictly ethical conflicts that do not qualify as legal matters.

To distinguish between the two, we will use this common definition for a legal conflict of interest: Any situation in which a person is able or likely to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity.

 Using this definition, one easily can see how awarding the board member’s excavation company a district contract benefits the board member personally because the board member owns the company.

An ethical conflict exists when, according to one definition, the ability or objectivity of a person to act or make decisions in his or her official capacity is called into question because of personal relationships, even though there is no personal benefit.

The second example fits this definition. The board member who was the parent of the volleyball coach was clearly viewed as biased because of the familial relationship, but what is commonly recognized as a legal conflict of interest was not present because the employee was not a dependent or spouse. The board member derived no personal benefit.

A Preventative Tact

Regardless, these conflicts usually are weighed equally in the court of public opinion. Most states insist that board members and district employees formally disclose legal conflicts of interest. However, a declaration that these issues exist may not curtail any action or decision in an official capacity.

The savvy superintendent can get in front of these issues by bringing policy recommendations to address the potential entanglements. School district nepotism policies that define family members’ joint employment or placement in subordinate positions to other family-member employees are common. Other policies define how board members must address their involvement in conflicting situations.

Although board members are routinely advised to abstain from discussions and votes because of conflicts of interest, that advice may not be enforceable without a local policy or statutory language to that effect. Drafting policy to prevent board members from participating in discussions and/or voting on items that represent legal or ethical conflicts is a sound, preventative solution.

MICHAEL ADAMSON is director of board services with the Indiana School Boards Association in Indianapolis, Ind.