The School Ethics Commission (SEC) recently issued three decisions regarding allegations that school officials violated the School Ethics Act. In all three cases, the allegations against board members were dismissed. In two of the decisions, the SEC stressed that ethics complaints must not be used as a threat against board members or as a means to thwart the election process, and in one case, the SEC imposed a penalty for a frivolous complaint.

SEC Declines to Be a Tool in Partisan Battles

In decision C57-14, the complainant alleged that a board member violated several sections of the Code of Ethics for School Board Members by taking unauthorized photos of the complainant’s minor son as he emerged from a car at the bus stop, and by telling the crossing guard at the bus stop that he was with the board of education conducting a study regarding the transportation program. The board member testified that no photo of the complainant’s child or any other child was taken. The only picture taken was of the parking lot, which was deleted. The complainant did not demonstrate that the respondent took, displayed or circulated any photos of children related to the bus stop. Further, the complainant was not present at the bus stop and had no eyewitness account to corroborate his allegations. The complainant also failed to provide any competent, relevant evidence or testimony from witnesses with first-hand, personal knowledge of the conversation with the crossing guard. The SEC found that the complainant failed to meet his burden of proof by relevant, credible evidence that the respondent violated the ethics code. The complaint was dismissed.

In reaching its decisions, the SEC made the following observations. First, the law requires all board members to “refer all complaints to the chief administrative officer and . . . act on the complaints at public meetings only after failure of an administrative solution.” Upon referral, the superintendent will decide if the issue requires investigation. The school district’s practice, which  permits board members to investigate a problem before referral to the superintendent, places the members at risk for a violation of the law, if proven by competent, relevant evidence.

Second, the voters in the school district decide which candidates will represent them on the school board. The complainant advised the board president that an ethics complaint would be filed against the board member unless that board member resigned from the board of education. The SEC advised that the seats that duly elected school officials occupy must not be threatened by individuals or outside groups seeking to change the balance of power in their favor through intimidation or coercion. The SEC must not be used as a tool in partisan battles to accomplish political ends. Such conduct sets a poor example for the children of the school district and weakens the public’s trust and confidence in the electoral process.

Board Member Did Not Receive Special Treatment

In C29-15, a complainant alleged that a board member violated several provisions of the School Ethics Act when she participated in and voted on the tentative 2015-2016 annual school budget which included a line item for the school district’s Career and Technical Services’ automotive technology program. The complaint maintained that because sometime in January 2013, the board member benefitted from services rendered by the program, she was prohibited from engaging in any discussion or voting on the school budget.

In January 2013, the bumper of the board member’s personal vehicle was repaired by the students in the program. Although the labor is free of charge to all school district residents, patrons must defray the costs of parts and materials. The complainant argued that the board member was not charged for some repairs and for the repainting of a portion of her car, and that she paid only $100 for the paint, but not for the primer, sealer or any other materials. The board member admitted that she had her car repaired by students in the program. Patrons can provide auto supplies for the repairs, or can be charged by the program. The board member used auto parts from the program, was charged for them, and produced an invoice. The board member did not submit a claim to her insurance company for the damages.

The board member also argued that she had no involvement in the development or preparation of the 2015-2016 budget, and most important, she voted “no” on the tentative budget, so any alleged benefits that the complainant asserted the board member wanted to preserve for herself evaporated. The board member contended that the filing of this complaint was politically motivated as she was running for re-election within two weeks of the filing.

The SEC determined that the complainant failed to demonstrate that the board member garnered any greater benefit for herself than any other resident of the community who chose to use the services of the program, nor did he show that the board member was precluded from availing herself of the services of the program simply because she sat on the board.

The SEC similarly determined that the complainant’s assertion that the board member’s objectivity and independent judgment were impaired in March 2015 because she had her car repaired over two years prior, in January 2013, was unreasonable and strained credibility. A simple reading of the board minutes for the vote on the tentative budget would have revealed to the complainant that the board member voted “no,” thus clearly forgoing any purported future benefit the complainant alleges the board member wanted to protect.

The SEC finally determined that complainant failed to demonstrate that the board member engaged in a plan or solicited or accepted something of value for the purpose of influencing her, directly or indirectly, in the discharge of her official duties for the promise of some future mutual benefit. There was simply no evidence to support the complainant’s allegation that a bargain was struck between the program coordinators and the board member to enable the board member to receive a benefit in the form of car repairs in 2013 in exchange for her vote on the 2015-2016 budget. In fact, as the board minutes reflected, the board member voted “no” on the tentative 2015-2016 budget and was not present for the final budget vote on May 12, 2015.

The SEC found no probable cause to credit the allegations that the board member violated various sections of the School Ethics Act and dismissed the complaint.

Fine for Frivolous Complaint

The SEC found the complaint to be frivolous and imposed a fine of $500.

Based on the evidence presented, the SEC found that the complainant’s allegations were false and damaging to the board member’s reputation and to those district personnel whom the complainant intimated were part of a quid pro quo arrangement for free services.

The SEC further determined that by failing to diligently investigate the factual background, the complainant commenced, used or continued in bad faith, solely for the purpose of harassment, delay or malicious injury. Even assuming that the complainant may not have begun the proceeding in bad faith, or solely for the purpose of harassment, delay or malicious injury, once he became aware that his facts were incorrect, he should have notified the commission that he did not wish to proceed with the complaint. His failure to fact-check his allegations by reading the minutes of the meetings, his subsequent failure to do so after the answer was filed, and his failure to request a withdrawal of the complaint after it was apparent on the record that his facts were erroneous, suggested that he was pursuing the complaint for reasons other than a good faith intent to seek redress of an ethics violation.

Recognizing its duty to the public, the SEC acknowledged its responsibility to hear litigants with legitimate claims of unethical conduct of a school official. The SEC tribunal is not, however, a forum where parties seek recourse for political feuds or as a way to thwart the electoral process or redirect its natural path. The SEC cannot allow itself to become an instrument for the community to launch baseless claims against school officials.

Board President Did Not Compromise Board with Statement

In decision C30-15 the complainants alleged that the president of the board of education violated the Code of Ethics for School Board Members by reading a statement at the board meeting regarding the failed vote to renew the superintendent’s contract.

On June 15, 2015, the board voted on a motion to renew the superintendent’s contract. There were four “yes” votes, three “no” votes and two abstentions. Without the requisite five-vote majority to renew, the motion to renew did not carry. At the next regular meeting of the board on July 13, 2015, the board president read a statement to the public explaining that five votes were required for renewal, two board members could not vote because of conflicts, and the renewal fell short by one vote as there were only four affirmative votes.

The SEC determined that the board president did nothing to compromise the board or act beyond the scope of her authority. The statement was benign, factual and instructive. As president of the board, she took the opportunity to address the public during the “new business” portion of the meeting to explain the meaning of the vote, to assuage public concerns by reassuring them that the positive gains in academic scores would continue, and to affirm there would be no upheaval in the day-to-day operation of the schools. The board president did not blame anyone for the vote; she simply stated factually why the contract renewal did not pass and what the future would hold; the statement only contained the facts regarding the vote for superintendent.

The SEC found nothing in the statement to support the complainants’ allegation that the board president made a personal promise or took any private action that may have compromised the board. The statement was made in an open public forum in the presence of the media; anyone who disagreed with her position could have voiced opposition in public that evening in the same venue. The SEC did not find as true  the allegation that the board president promised to bring the contract renewal to another vote. Given the term of the superintendent’s current contract, the board had until February 2016 to notify the superintendent of the nonrenewal of her contract, more than six months from the date of the incidents in question. No second vote was promised.

The SEC dismissed the complaint in its entirety for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

Board members and school administrators are encouraged to review these opinions with their school board attorney to determine the impact that they may have on their particular local board operations.