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Do schools have an ethics problem? Consider these partial headlines over news stories involving school officials:

“Superintendent lies on resume”
Report finds reason to believe official blurred ethical  lines”
 “Funds used for fishing outing”
 “Funds used for reviewing porn”
 “Leader faces ethics charge”

And the list goes on. School districts have also been dealing with allegations regarding the falsification of resumes and both teachers and administrators facilitating cheating on tests. In addition, there have been reports of improper relationships between administrators and school board members.

These can be considered “exceptions that prove the rule” that school officials generally conduct themselves consistent with public expectations. But they are testimony to the fact that school board members need to be concerned about ethics.

School boards have both formal and informal roles to play with regard to ethics.

Informally, it’s often said that the tone is set at the top. Ethical leadership in a school district begins with the values of the school board.

Formally, the board has legal duties involving ethics that extend beyond simple adherence to the conflict of interest provisions of the General Municipal Law. Did you know that the General Municipal Law not only requires every school district to have a code of ethics, it also permits a district to establish standards beyond those required by the Legislature? It’s true. There are both “required” and “optional” provisions that should be considered in constructing a good code of ethics.

Local ethics codes must contain standards concerning the disclosure of one’s interest in pending matters, investments conflicting with official duties, private employment conflicting with official duties and future employment. Ethics codes also may contain optional provisions concerning “other standards deemed advisable,” prohibiting disclosure of confidential information, regulating or prohibiting other conduct, and requirements for financial disclosure.

Like any other code of conduct, a code of ethics can only be as good as those subject to it are willing to behave. Ethics involves individuals making personal judgments. Questions school officials need to ask themselves include:

  • How will it look in tomorrow’s headlines?
  • Is it legal?
  • What would I say on the witness stand?
  • How does it make me feel?
  • Can I tell my family about this with a clear conscience?
  • Is it within my organization’s shared beliefs and policies?

It’s important to recognize that what’s legal may not be ethical, at least in the eyes of the public. That was the conclusion of the New York State Temporary State Commission on Local Government Ethics, which worked on aiding municipal entities in addressing ethics concerns and proposing new ethics legislation from 1990 to 1992. As reported in a Fordham Urban Law Journal article titled “Keeping the Faith: A Model Local Ethics Law,” the commission found that almost none of the actions of officials investigated by the commission violated penal or ethics laws. “Yet the public, perhaps justifiably, reviewed those unregulated actions as improper.” Thus, “a great chasm exists between the actual and perceived integrity of local government officials.”

The following instances were found to constitute ethically questionable, though not necessarily illegal, activities in municipalities and school districts:

  • A board attorney appearing before the board on behalf of private clients.
  • A board member representing a contractor before the board.
  • A board member voting on a matter in which he has an indirect interest.
  • A school board trustee voting to raise the salary of his sister, the deputy board clerk.

The commission noted instances of ineffective enforcement of existing ethical standards, the use of public office for private gain, political solicitation, improper influence of officials by private persons and the “revolving door” syndrome, where former officials successfully lobby or do business with the very entities they just finished serving. Again, virtually none of the above actions violate current New York State law.

Interestingly, the commission found that local government officials lack counsel as to what behavior is ethical as opposed to legal. While your school attorney is the person your board routinely turns to regarding what’s lawful, perhaps the scope of this consultation needs to grow, as it is important to avoid the “appearance of impropriety.”

Examining your school district’s code of ethics is the place to start. Your school attorney can help your board draft language targeted at conduct that, while legal, could be criticized by regulatory agencies such as the New York State Comptroller’s Office or the State Education Department.

Boards should work with administrators to ensure that ethics are routinely addressed in a variety of ways. For instance, events such as professional development sessions provide an opportunity to articulate and re-emphasize the district’s ethical standards. Statements about ethics can be important in the hiring process and in the way we introduce new employees to the employer’s expectations in the workplace.” And, of course, academic integrity is essential.

Wikipedia tells us “Ethics (also a moral philosophy) is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.” This is a worthwhile focus for any enterprise, especially our schools.
Members of the New York State Association of School Attorneys represent school boards and school districts. This article was written by Karl Kristoff of Hodgson Russ LLP.


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