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A Disqualifying Act
School Administrator, February 2021
The executive director of a state superintendent association learns of the candidacy of a member in good standing for an elected position on the organization’s board. The candidate is the ex-husband of a family friend known well to the executive director, who is aware this man brutally beat his wife before she divorced him. The executive director does not want to see the candidate elected to the board, which is considered a prestigious professional role. With the election six months later, the executive director is at a loss for what to do.
As “conduct unbecoming,” assault and battery on a spouse would be cause for a superintendent’s termination, let alone ineligibility for a leadership position on the association’s board. The chance that this information might become public has far greater implications for the superintendent’s career and future than just the upcoming election. It appears that whatever domestic violence occurred has not become public as yet, although it may be referred to in the divorce proceedings or in a police log.
The director’s personal knowledge of the incident presents significant ethical conflicts. First, does he have a responsibility to share his knowledge more publicly? Second, what role should he play in the election? Third, if the candidate is elected and the abuse becomes public at a later date, will it compromise the state association and his own standing with the board as a result of his prior knowledge of the abuse? Fourth, how does he deal with his own feelings of discomfort and antipathy toward the candidate?
The director must be careful not to insert himself into the middle of a domestic situation. It is not his prerogative to reveal this information publicly. Given that the ex-wife knows that the director is aware of the domestic incident, he should talk with her about his concern, while clarifying that it would be inappropriate for him to speak for her or publicly reveal what he knows of the incident.
If the ex-wife wants this information to become public, she should be the person to take that step. There may be a significant reason she does not want to reveal the information. Whatever the reason, the director needs to respect her wishes. On the other hand, if she chooses to reveal the information publicly, it will have serious consequences for the superintendent, the least of which is to prevent him from securing a position on the association board.
In general, an association executive director should remain neutral in elections for board members and officers, making sure the process runs appropriately, but not intervening on behalf of any candidate. The director needs to be able to work effectively with anyone who is elected. This election is no different, even though the director may find the private actions of the superintendent abhorrent.
Although the director may want to meet privately with the candidate to share what he knows and his thoughts about its potential implications for the superintendent’s position, that would be inserting himself into the domestic conflict and could have ramifications for the ex-wife. It also would likely cast a pall over the director’s future relationship with the candidate, whether or not he is elected to the board. If the candidate is elected and later the information becomes public, the association board may ask the director if he knew of this information earlier. If the director has had a conversation with the ex-wife, he is in a good position to indicate to the board that he raised the issue in private as is appropriate. As it is personal information with limited impact on the association, it would have been improper for him to share the information with other association board members.
Both the character and reputation of the executive director and candidate are on the line! The executive director must move forward and address the issue with this board candidate, and the board candidate needs to come clean on what happened. He is running for a public board. The executive director is leading a state organization that has leaders who represent public schools and students.
In preparation for meeting with the candidate, the executive director needs to talk to the organization’s legal counsel to determine how to approach this issue with the candidate with a plan in place. There should be evidence other than the executive director’s word that this actually happened, such as a police report if the abuse was reported to authorities. There should be something in the association’s bylaws regarding board ethics and character that can be referenced during discussion. The executive director could ask legal counsel to sit in on the discussion with the candidate.
If there is no evidence other than the executive director’s word, the focus of the conversation will be to get the candidate to discuss the alleged incident and what happened. If there is a police report and indication in the bylaws for preclusion of candidates running with issues of character, then the discussion will still not be easy but will have a more clear path forward. Either way, if this action against the candidate’s wife did occur, it is considered an assault. No justification for such indefensible behavior should be acceptable.
The executive director is taking a risk having this conversation, but in good conscience it is obvious he/she needs to address the issue. His/her knowledge of this incident and concern about the candidate confirms this. The executive director is in a precarious and terrible situation. If he/she ignores the knowledge of the assault on the ex-wife, he or she could be accused of covering for the candidate. When the director talks to the candidate, there is the risk that the candidate could deny the event if there is no proof or accuse the executive director of tampering with the slate of candidates and trying to ruin his reputation. Ultimately, if the personal assault occurred, it could further impact the candidate’s school district job. This is a complex situation for both individuals.
The executive director has multiple options including: (1) seek to disqualify the candidate; (2) persuade the candidate to withdraw; (3) endorse and contribute to opponents; (4) launch a negative “whisper” campaign about his domestic abuse; or (5) let the election run its course because the candidate may be a valuable board member despite his past history with the “family friend.”
Before choosing, he needs to gather documentation about the incident from the family friend, court records, or media coverage. With documentation, he should sit down with the candidate and let him know how this matter will negatively impact their working relationship if he gets elected. He should ask him to withdraw and express appreciation for him doing so. If the candidate declines, the director should indicate that prior to the election, the association will prepare a profile of all candidates that includes the results of deep background screening and that this matter would appear on his profile for his colleagues - and his own school board -- to see. This profile would not just cause him embarrassment but may even disqualify him. If the candidate does not withdraw, the executive director should proceed with preparing profiles of all candidates.
However, if there is no documentation of domestic abuse, he should still try to persuade him to withdraw. If the candidate refuses, he should not ethically pursue either option 3 or 4, must put aside his personal animosity and let the election run its course.
This is a very challenging and sensitive issue. And one that, unfortunately, would have been better handled before the election advanced to the point of becoming contested. It appears the executive director knew of the abuse allegations before this member became a candidate. Presumably, he chose not to raise the issue to the board chair sooner to protect the privacy of the ex-wife, which is understandable.
Raising the issue now presents two risks if the allegations were to become public: (1) it would make the board’s vetting process look weak; and (2) if the candidate wins, the board’s good reputation would be tainted by seating an alleged spousal abuser. However, there’s a larger ethical issue here that demands the issue is raised.
Some possible actions for the director include: Privately confronting the candidate, in a very non-threatening way, to ask him to consider withdrawing from the election for the board’s greater good; or taking the matter to the board chair to find a solution.
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
, superintendent, Andover, Mass.;
, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent;
, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and
Glenn "Max" McGee
, a former superintendent and regional president of Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates in Schaumburg, Ill.