Ethical Educator

A Parent's Smear Campaign
School Administrator, January 2020

Scenario: A school board member is furious that a principal will not transfer his son out of a class in which he is getting a D due to “a personality conflict” with the teacher. The board member is a friend of the local newspaper editor and begins a smear campaign, including letters to the editor claiming the principal protects bad teachers and shows favoritism to certain students. He asks acquaintances to speak out against the principal at board meetings and tells the superintendent to recommend dismissal … or else. The principal has been impacted mentally by the attacks. How should the superintendent proceed?

Max McGee: 
Bring on the “or else.” To me, this is the proverbial “hill to die on” and a call for courageous action because the ramifications of giving into the board member’s demands will set precedents that will disrupt the system and soon pit teachers against board members and administrators to the detriment of students.

Even a compromise will embolden the board member — and other members — to use similar unethical tactics to get what they want regardless of board protocols and policies. The superintendent has to meet with the board president and board member immediately to review any hard evidence of the board member’s claim, to share any counter evidence and to illustrate how the member violated protocols and policies. If there is evidence to support the member’s anger with the teacher and principal, the superintendent will need to follow up with some corrective action, short of dismissal.

Whether or not evidence of a personality conflict exists, the superintendent must request strong support from the president and the rest of the board to curb the member’s tactics and personal attacks.

Finally, the superintendent needs to leap to the aid of the principal by tangibly showing personal concern for his health, by having the human resources director share options for mental health supports, by assuring the principal has 24/7, front-of-the-line access to the superintendent and HR director as needed and by recognizing and reviewing the positive contributions of the principal.

Sadly, cases like this seldom end well for either the principal or the superintendent and ultimately both will need to decide if they really want to continue to work in a system where an elected member’s actions are inappropriate and unethical.
Maggie Lopez:
This board member is way out of line not only in his actions toward the principal, but also in his demand that the superintendent fire the principal … or else. The board leadership and superintendent need to meet with the school board member regarding his inappropriate and legally damaging behavior. The district’s legal counsel should attend this meeting and be prepared to review board member conduct policy, local and state policies, protocols, laws and expectations for board member behavior and potential consequences for his actions (e.g. possibly slanderous or libelous behavior against the principal and school district). It needs to be made crystal clear to the board member that this behavior will not be tolerated and is not worthy of board member conduct. It needs to stop immediately or there will be action taken.

If the board member refuses to stop his behavior after the meeting and discussion, then the board should work with legal counsel and seek appropriate action against the board member, which could include censoring. The state school board association or National School Boards Association could be a resource regarding next steps for the board to take. This board member is doing tremendous damage to the reputation of the board, principal and district because he is not getting what he wants for his son. This is not acceptable.

Finally, the superintendent needs to ensure the principal has the support needed, which could include using employee assistance services and/or offering the principal leave time if needed. The principal needs to talk to district legal counsel and his state association’s legal counsel for information regarding next steps as his reputation and mental health have been impacted.
Meira Levinson:
Can school board members be impeached? Truly, this board member is making unprofessional and outrageous use of his power as a public official. Even if his analysis of what is going on in his son’s class is accurate and even if as a parent he believes his son should be transferred, it is utterly inappropriate for a school board member to use his position to press his case the way he is doing.

The superintendent must stand up to the board member. At a minimum, she should refuse to recommend that the principal be dismissed, and she should reassure the principal that she remains supportive of his leadership. Perhaps equally importantly, the superintendent needs to demonstrate publicly that she stands by the integrity of her school leadership team.

Because the school board member has made the fight public, the superintendent needs to offer public support for the district’s administrators, faculty and staff as well. Otherwise, they may wonder what will happen to their own careers if they dare to cross someone in power and may compromise their own judgment as a result.
My hope is that because the school board member has been so open about pursuing his personal vendetta, he will not persuade other board members to join his side.  If this is the case, the superintendent can remain principled while also not risk losing the rest of the board’s support.  But even if this is a higher-stakes gamble, it is still essential that the superintendent defend the long-term integrity of her team for the sake of the district as a whole.

Shelley Berman:

It appears that the board member is attempting to use his standing in the community and his political office to influence the grading and placement decisions of educators, as well as their employment. While finding this behavior objectionable, the superintendent needs to investigate and determine whether the board member has a legitimate complaint about the teacher and the principal’s decision.

The superintendent should request that the board member refrain from any further comment or action until the investigation is completed. If the investigation reveals the board member’s complaint to be valid, the superintendent should work with the principal to resolve the issue.

On the other hand, if the investigation supports both the teacher and the principal in this matter, those individuals need to be reassured of that fact so they can focus on their professional responsibilities. In either case, the superintendent should relay the findings from the investigation to the board member.

If the superintendent supports the principal’s decision and the board member persists in his egregious smear campaign and his threat of retaliation against the superintendent, the superintendent should discuss the issue with the board chair and ask for the chair’s intervention.

In many states, it is a violation of state law and ethics regulations for board members to become involved in personnel issues. The board chair could remind the member of his role in relation to personnel and ask him to desist from his campaign. The chair could also indicate to those who have been enlisted to speak about the principal at board meetings that personnel matters are not an appropriate topic for board discussion. The superintendent also should advise the teacher and principal to contact their state association or an attorney to ensure they are protected.

The board member has a right to his opinion and to free speech, which limits the superintendent’s options for changing his behavior. However, his actions appear unethical and could have legal consequences for him and the board. If the campaign continues, the board and superintendent may have an obligation to file a complaint with the state ethics commission to determine whether the board member’s using his position in an effort to improperly procure a personal benefit for his family and to influence personnel decisions are violations of state ethics rules for elected officials. If other members of the board are concerned about this behavior, the board can move to publicly censure him.

The smear campaign against the principal and the attempt to force the superintendent to breach the contract with the principal are efforts to interfere with the principal’s contractual rights. As a result, the board member and the district could be liable for a claim of tortious interference with contractual relations, that is, when one party interferes in an effort to breach an existing contract between other parties — in this case, the district and the principal. If the information relayed in the smear campaign is blatantly false and damaging to the individual, the principal could sue for defamation of character.

As this conflict spills into the court of public opinion, it undermines the community’s confidence in the school district and the board. Although perhaps unable to control or even influence the actions of the board member, the superintendent should convey with great clarity to the other board members the reasons for deep concern about what this one member has done. One or more of these peers may be able to help the board member understand that personal conflicts are best resolved through dialogue rather than vengeful smear campaigns. Depending upon the age of the student at the center of this matter, the board member may also want to consider what life lessons his son is learning about how to handle disagreements.

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.