Ethical Educator

A Club Adviser’s Perk
School Administrator, January 2022

Scenario: The faculty adviser for her high school’s Diversity/Cultural Exchange Club has organized student trips to Europe through an educational travel company and recruited students, parents and chaperones for the annual overseas trips. The tour company enrolled the adviser in its rewards program as a group leader, giving her travel points and stipends based on the number of travelers she recruited. Over five years, the teacher received $5,530 in stipends and 4,516 in travel points from the tour company, redeeming the latter for airline tickets and a European vacation. The school district’s business administrator is questioning whether the club adviser’s actions represent a conflict of interest.

Chris Nicastro: 

Most school districts have a board policy that defines and prohibits conflicts of interest for staff members. These policies should be distributed to staff members to make them aware of the restrictions and notify them of any consequences for violating the policy. If this is the case, the business administrator should refer the issue to the teacher's supervisor for investigation and resolution and notify the superintendent of the situation. 

In this case, the teacher is personally and financially benefitting from her activity as a sponsor. Such activity, even without a policy, is unprofessional and creates an awkward situation for her and the district. Teachers are generally compensated by the district for sponsoring student activities and should not receive additional compensation or monetary gifts. Her recruitment efforts make this behavior even more egregious in that she actively sought to increase her own benefits. 

If there is a policy governing the consequences of this action, the policy should be followed. At a minimum, the teacher should be warned and directed to cease and desist this arrangement with the travel company.

Shelley Berman:

This is clearly a conflict of interest and an ethics violation that could result in an adverse decision before the state’s ethics commission, requiring the faculty adviser to pay substantial fines and face potential employee discipline. Although the awarding of stipends and points is common among tour companies, ethics commission decisions have identified the practice as a conflict of interest. 

A conflict of interest occurs when a person receives personal benefit from actions taken in their professional capacity. As a public employee, the faculty adviser is subject to the state’s conflict of interest laws that prohibit individuals from gaining personal advantage through actions within their official areas of responsibility. The provision of stipends and travel points to the person arranging the trips creates an opportunity to bias the selection of a tour company based on personal advantage rather than effective provision of services to students, thereby creating a conflict of interest. 

The business administrator is correct in raising the issue, and the superintendent should immediately inform all faculty advisers who organize student trips that they are not allowed to accept any rewards from a tour company for their efforts. Although this action is the right step to take, it may decrease faculty interest in organizing and facilitating student trips since the excursions require an enormous amount of preparatory work and supervisory responsibility. The stipends and travel points were offered by the tour company as a significant incentive to encourage faculty to take on these roles. Without these incentives, the district may need to seek other ways to compensate faculty advisers for their leadership in facilitating student travel opportunities. One alternative would be district-funded stipends, which would incentivize faculty while avoiding any potential conflict of interest.

(See Massachusetts Ethics Commission, Disposition Agreement in the Matter of Stephanie Viens, Docket No. 19-0009.)

Louis Wool:

The circumstances in this dilemma pose multiple troubling ethical problems. The first and most apparent is that a teacher should not be garnering outside rewards by rendering service to her students, especially recruiting students and parents to attend field trips. The business official is correct; the teacher has a conflict of interest in her relationship with the travel agency. 

While unstated, she is likely receiving a stipend from the district as an advisor to the Diversity/ Cultural Exchange Club. Any reward earned from these trips should accrue to the district and defer the cost of these trips or other field trips for students.  Many families would struggle to pay for overseas trips. The business administrator should immediately stop this practice and determine if the teacher must reimburse the district for the rewards.

The critical information unaddressed here is the club fostering diversity and cultural awareness by ensuring students have equal access to this experience? The irony here is this is the advisor of the Diversity/Cultural Exchange Club. If participating in the trip is based on the ability to pay, the advisor and the district work at cross purposes in fostering diversity and cultural awareness. In many states, the education law requires that the district pays for field trips; this is often not the practice. Clubs and booster clubs regularly engage in fundraising to defer the cost of trips for students and the school district. Extracurricular trips and activities are an enriching high school experience and should be equally available to every student.

It seems unlikely that access is the center of her considerations; any personal reward based on the number of participants is likely to influence the teacher's behavior. 

Mary Ellen Elia:

It is obvious the school district has no clear guidelines on how to handle a situation regarding faculty advisers participating in outside activities sponsored by external organizations. It is clear the faculty adviser is the sponsor of the Diversity/Cultural Club and works with students in that capacity during the school year. For multiple years, that same sponsor has been the organizer/sponsor for the European trip outside of the regular school year. Establishing some guidelines is warranted.   

Important aspects of the guidelines should be clarity around the relationship between the district and travel company; the liability related to participation in travel beyond sanctioned school activities; and information shared regarding points and/or stipends given to the club sponsor based on participants. Open information and transparency are the keys to dealing with this situation.

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Sheldon Berman, AASA lead superintendent, Redmond, Ore.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Chris Lee Nicastro, former Missouri commissioner of education and president, Lee Consulting Group, St. Louis, Mo.; and Louis N. Wool, superintendent, Harrison, N.Y.