Ethical Educator

The Late Night Reconsideration
School Administrator, February 2016

At a school board meeting where only three of the five members are present, a teacher is recommended during executive session for an instructional coach position. Returning to open session, the board approves the appointment 2-1. Later that night, a participating board member calls the superintendent and asks to rescind her vote in favor, saying she did not realize a local candidate had applied for the position. She asks the superintendent not to extend the contract to the teacher appointed at the board meeting. What should the superintendent do?

Mario Ventura:
An ethical education leader ensures recommendations to the governing board are made with fairness, transparency and in the best interest of the school district. In this situation, the superintendent should not deviate from following the policies and procedures established by the school district. The superintendent should move forward on hiring the teacher approved by majority vote of the governing board.

The superintendent also should seek to better understand the board member’s position about her desire to rescind her vote for the instructional coach position. When and how did the board member realize the recommended candidate was not local? Why does she believe the local candidate should be recommended over the selected teacher? The board member may not realize the ethical and legal implications of her request.

Sarah Mackenzie:
This scenario falls definitely in the political realm as well as the ethical. The superintendent doesn’t want to anger a school board member over something like this, and I assume there is a process for rescinding a vote by a member of the board since the board member requested it.

Although the superintendent may accept the board member’s request to change her vote, it does not mean that board members should be involved in deciding who is nominated by the superintendent for positions. It’s worrisome that the board member is changing her vote because there was a local candidate who, obviously, was not nominated for the job. There are many possible reasons why this candidate was not considered: timeliness of application, inadequate, qualifications, ineffective interview, but these are not the province of board members.

As the superintendent, I would be wary of this person’s motives and carefully explain that rescinding a vote is acceptable (if it is according to the committee’s policies and procedures), but that is where the member’s actions must stop. It’s possible at a future meeting that the name of the person initially voted on and accepted would be put forward again or another nominee might be named. That is the role of the superintendent. Board members can accept or reject a choice, nothing more.

Shelley Berman:
This case illustrates one reason school boards should not be involved in personnel decisions. Hiring, dismissal and promotion decisions should be made in a fair and independent manner by those who are best able to assess an individual’s capabilities to perform well in a position, not by board members who are elected to serve as policy leaders for the district. Personnel decisions should be based on the competence of an individual to perform well in a position, not on the residency of the candidates. In addition, in order to move a district forward, administrators need discretion to assemble a leadership team that can best achieve the district’s goals.

The board’s role should be to enable the superintendent to build a leadership team that delivers results for children and parents, rather than a staff that reflects the political favoritism of board members. In this case, a board member is seeking to override the district’s standard hiring procedure and the superintendent’s recommendation based on an inappropriate preference for a candidate’s residence rather than on the individual’s competence. Initially, the superintendent should talk with the board member about the role of the board in personnel decisions. The superintendent should also explain that taking an action to potentially reverse this decision is likely to create resentment and ill will on the part of the teacher and other employees and put the district at risk of losing a valuable and talented employee. It is also likely to put the other candidate in an awkward position in relation to his or her peers, thereby compromising his or her effectiveness.

In addition to the issue of the appropriate role of the board in personnel, this case raises a process issue. By standard rules of order for meetings, the vote of the board stands until a public meeting at which the individual board member can ask to reconsider or rescind that vote. However, under Robert’s Rules of Order, if a vote results in a contract and the party has been informed of the vote, the motion cannot be rescinded. Because this vote occurred at a public meeting and resulted in an appointment that could be considered an oral contract, the board may not be able to reconsider or rescind its vote. Depending upon how the superintendent presented the proposed promotion to the individual and how the motion before the board was framed, the teacher may have legal recourse for a breach of contract. In order to ensure that the board does not violate a contract or its own rules of order, the superintendent should have a legal counsel review the implications of the board member’s request.

It is appropriate for the board member to forewarn the superintendent of her intention to propose reconsideration of the appointment at the next meeting. Likewise, it is appropriate for the superintendent to indicate to the board member that such action would require a review by legal counsel of the rules of order for the meeting and that it could have a significant and negative impact on staff involved in the hiring process. It may be politically expedient for the superintendent, in consultation with the board chair and legal counsel, to delay offering a written contract until after the next board meeting where the role of the board in personnel matters, the board’s decision in this particular case, and the procedural rules governing such decisions can be discussed. In the meantime, the superintendent should inform the teacher of the board member’s request and should hold off on confirming the appointment until the legality of reconsideration is determined.

This case may be an exceptional situation reflecting the behavior of one board member. However, if this member’s approach reflects the past behavior of board members, the superintendent should recommend a facilitated retreat for the board to consider its roles and responsibilities in relation to personnel. If the board persists in similar intrusions in personnel decisions, it will compromise the superintendent’s ability to lead and the district’s ability to hire and promote the best individuals for positions. In that case, I would recommend that the superintendent find another district to lead.

Kelly Henson:
The superintendent should explain to the board member that official action can only be taken at a board meeting, and the superintendent has no authority to change any action of the board. If the superintendent believes there is a lack of support on the board for the candidate, the superintendent can bring this recommendation back to the board at the next meeting, or a called meeting, to determine the will of the full board.

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.; Kelly Henson, executive director, Georgia Professional Standards Commission; Sarah MacKenzie, associate professor of educational leadership, University of Maine at Orono; and Mario Ventura, superintendent, Isaac School District, Phoenix, Ariz., and member of the Model Code of Educator Ethics Task Force.