The Bigger Picture on MMSD School Board Conflicts of Interest

I found the recent Wisconsin State Journal article on the school board elections and Nichelle Nichols’ Urban League employment odd and at the same time interesting. When I was elected in 2006, there was a well established practice that board members would abstain from both discussion and voting if there was a conflict of interest OR the APPEARANCE of a conflict of interest. I distinctly remember leaving the room, and watching other board members leave the room when discussions involved employment, financial interests, leadership positions in nonprofits, and other factors involving the board member or a close member of their family. This practice is less codified than it was in 2006, and perhaps should be revisited when the new board member(s) take(s) office.
In tapping members of the community, there are few board members who have zero conflicts of interest. I have stepped out of participation when the discussion involved agreements with my employer, or decisions that would possibly affect the value of property owned by my husband. Arlene has stepped out of discussions involving Promega, her employer. As a retired teacher with related MMSD benefits, Marj has stepped out of negotiations and bargaining. Ed has, in the past, stepped out of decisions involving the Goodman Center where his wife is a board member. More than one of us has stepped out of disciplinary decisions that have affected the children of colleagues or friends of the family.
I believe that this high standard of conduct has been good practice for the district. People openly acknowledge that they oughtn’t discuss or vote on a matter because they may not be entirely neutral or lacking in interests other than the best interest of the district. Which is what board members are elected to consider first and foremost.
Nichelle Nichols has acknowledged the issues throughout her campaign and has indicated that she would step out where discussions and decisions overlap with her ULGM responsibilities. Mary Burke, if elected, will need to do her own soul searching about whether it is appropriate to vote on matters related to AVID, Boys and Girls Club, Dane County United Way, and perhaps other organizations where she plays a significant philanthropy and/or leadership role. If re-elected, I expect that Arlene will continue to take the high road as she has done in the past. The candidate who appears to carry the least conflict of interest baggage is Michael Flores, and I would expect that other board members and district counsel would play a role in helping him to decide how to handle conflicts if they arise.
What concerns me at this time is a subtle shift that has de-emphasized the higher standard to which board members once held themselves. The GAB response to DeFour appears to narrowly focus on whether there is an employment relationship between a board member and an organization that may benefit from a board vote, ignoring other types of relationships that would make impartiality challenging to exercise or demonstrate.
In addition, the post-election orientations for board members that were formerly in place have fallen by the wayside in recent years. As a result, people elected in recent years did not receive the printed copies of board policies and discussion of how they worked – including conflicts of interest – that helped to train and inform myself and other longer-serving board members.
In addition, Board Policy 1540 – School Board Ethics that addresses ethics was rewritten in recent years. That rewrite added a good deal of language about board behavior, but the relevant language on conflicts of interest is relegated to the MMSD “Code of Conduct” Board Policy 9000A, in which the following sections are overshadowed by concern about decisions made to enter into contracts or purchase services:

3 No employee or member of the Board of Education shall participate in or attempt to influence any District decision-making process in which s/he has a substantial personal or financial interest.
4 No employee or member of the Board of Education may use her/his employment or position with the District in a way that produces or assists in the production of a substantial benefit for the employee.
“Substantial personal interest” or “substantial benefit” to the employee or member of the Board of Education includes, but is not limited to, such interest or benefit that an immediate family member has, as well as an interest in an organization with which the employee or member of the Board of Education is associated.

It is my hope that as the newly configured board takes shape in a few weeks, it will use the orientation and settling period to review and reflecting on the above sections of board policy and procedure. My personal perspective is that such an effort would be time well spent, if only to collectively remember and affirm the fundamental and primary responsibility of elected board members to serving the best interests of the district and its students. There is no question that individual board members ‘get it,’ but there also is something very powerful about making a group commitment to these values at the beginning of the annual school policy cycle.