Ethical Educator

Noxious Beyond the Odor
School Administrator, August 2020

Scenario: The cash-strapped school district has a middle school that borders on a construction waste dump generating obnoxious odors that the Environmental Protection Agency has been investigating. The corporate owner approaches the school board offering $125,000 a year and property the district needs for constructing a new athletic field in return for a promise not to file an official complaint unless the company acts illegally. Should the superintendent advise the board to accept this offer?

MaryEllen Elia:

This proposition seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Such a “gracious” and preemptive offer reeks of questionable motives — ones that a school should not become embroiled in. Whatever short-term fix the proposed arrangement might appear to offer cannot supersede the long-term needs of the middle school and its community. It would be irresponsible and financially and ethically inappropriate to engage the corporate owner with full knowledge that an EPA investigation already is underway and that a potential judgment looms. The fact the EPA is actively involved to begin with indicates that a high degree of concern exists enough to warrant its intervention, and that a significant problem is at least possible, if not likely.

I am reminded of superfund sites across the country (West Virginia and Niagara Falls, to name two) where contamination seriously affected schools and their communities. If these examples tell us anything, it’s that there’s a strong possibility that this school will need to be completely rebuilt based on the EPA’s investigation, with a cost that could total in the tens of millions of dollars. To sign this agreement is to sign away the school’s rights and future ability to hold the company fully responsible for the effects of its actions. The superintendent should therefore advise the board to decline the offer, file their own complaint if they so choose and allow the investigative and legal processes to take their course.

Maggie Lopez:

Steer clear of this deal and find another way to fund the projects and land you need. Agreeing to these terms would be like making a pact with the devil and eventually will catch up with the district. Long term, this would be a public relations mess and might make your community wonder what other under-the-table deals the district has been involved in that might make others question the district’s integrity. Districts always are looking for partnerships that will benefit students and bring more resources to help kids. This is not one of those partnerships!

The superintendent should advise the board against even considering this option and include legal counsel in the discussion so that legal aspects can be reviewed with the board should one of the board members question the recommendation. All the parameters for this scenario point to exchanges that could not ethically be explained to the taxpayers the board represents. This offer looks more like a payoff for the district to keep quiet even when it is obvious inappropriate actions are occurring, being ignored by the landowner and apparently are serious enough that now the EPA is involved. It appears the owners have something to hide, and it would be unethical for the district to assist them in sweeping it under the rug.

Max McGee:

The superintendent needs to inform the board of the offer and provide rationale for rejecting it on ethical and legal grounds as it is tantamount to a bribe. However, the superintendent should seize the opportunity to leverage cleanup of the waste dump. 

A savvy superintendent would let the owner know that AFTER the site was made clean and safe through cooperation with the EPA, the community and the district, the board would work with the owner to create a partnership that would enable the district to acquire or lease purchase the needed property at a below market rate to the mutual benefit of all parties. The district’s benefits would be a more healthy environment and space for an athletic field, and the corporate benefit would be positive public perception, no legal issues and revenue from the sale or lease of the property.

Shelley Berman:

The company owner is offering a bribe that the superintendent and board should immediately reject. The offer is made more egregious given that the EPA has already launched an investigation. The fact that the owner made this proposal creates suspicion of a problem that the company doesn’t want revealed. Given the circumstances, the district also has an interest in an investigation into the source of the odor and the scope of any contamination from the waste dump.

The funds and property would clearly help the district; however, committing to not file a complaint in the future could make the superintendent, the board and the district complicit with violations of environmental laws and subject to liability claims. If the district suspects that the waste dump is negatively impacting children and staff, the district has a responsibility to file a complaint. Although the board and the administration might believe they would be acting in the best interests of the district by securing additional resources and property, accepting the terms of the deal would raise serious questions about their own integrity. It also would compromise their ability to represent and advocate for the health and welfare of the students and staff in the school, which is their primary responsibility.

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.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.