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Ethics policy must be fair, enforceable

July 27, 2008|By WAYNE D. RIDENOUR

After reading the column of July 18 regarding the proposed Washington County Board of Education ethics policy, and noticing that I was singled out in my opposition to portions of the policy, I believe it necessary for me to respond.

The policy and included regulations are extensive. I am uncertain how closely Bob Maginnis studied the document or how long he viewed the meeting where discussions took place. He seems to have focused on one specific section instead of the document as a whole. If he listened to the entire discussion, I believe he would have noticed that not only did I not "take offense" but that I questioned multiple sections, not just to the language regarding disclosure of conflict of interest to which he speaks.

Since the column has focused in on this section, I will speak to it first. My concern deals with the narrowness of the proposed language. In a broad sense, the language speaks to conflicts of interest for board members. The specific areas included deal with negotiations, personnel matters and outside employment of board employees.

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Under the new policy, "a member may participate if his/her spouse, parent, child, brother or sister is employed provided the board member discloses such information"

To me, this disclosure is not a big deal. I have disclosed that my wife and sister are teachers. My problem is the narrow interpretation of conflict of interest in this area and when disclosure is necessary. To my question of "where do you draw the line?" the column states that you would disclose if you had friends/child in the system.

In saying that, you support my position. By having a narrow listing of the people for which disclosure is needed, the policy is providing a legal safe harbor for anyone to avoid disclosure of those outside the persons cited; further, the definition for conflict of interest should be much broader.

I do not believe my wife and sister as teachers create a greater conflict than a member having a child going to a school scheduled for a construction project or new program. These can cost significant taxpayer money and yet they do not require disclosure. In my time in office, I have heard many more complaints from citizens about specific schools getting preferential treatment because a member's child attends that school than any complaint regarding an employee's yearly raise.

There are numerous other potential conflicts. Attempting to include them all in a policy is futile. We must remember the BOE is the largest employer in Washington County. As such, it would be impossible for members to disclose all possible relationships that could lead to perceived conflicts, financial or otherwise. In my opinion the NSBA code of ethics statement is sufficient - "avoid being placed in a conflict of interest." This simple language has provided the necessary safeguard in the past and would do so in the future.

The next section speaks to participation in personnel matters. The new language reads that a member may not participate in a decision "to hire, transfer, promote, sever employment or otherwise take action regarding a Board member's spouse, parent, child, brother or sister" Again, it is no big deal except there are other potential relationships that the policy does not deem to be a conflict. In today's society there are blended families, step children, in-laws and others that may even reside in a member's household. By mentioning only a few relationships, the safe harbor again comes into play. Further, based on this language a member would have to recuse him/herself from what may potentially be a list of 50-plus personnel actions due to one relationship.

Another section speaks to outside employment of BOE employees. In the effort to highlight that system employment takes priority over other employment, the language may violate COMAR, NFLSA and the teacher's negotiated agreement. Wages and hours are dictated by the negotiated agreement and the law. We have no authority to write a policy that says otherwise.

The document also imposes policy requirements on BOE candidates. In my opinion, candidates and their actions are driven by election laws. A policy speaking to candidates is unenforceable and as such should not be included.

While some "tweaking" of the policy is necessary, the overall work presented goes well beyond what is needed. My questions and opposition to the policy are driven by my desire to have a policy that is both workable and enforceable. Many of the policy changes do not reach that threshold.

As was stated, we are writing for the future so the language included must be workable. I am reminded that the language of the 15th Amendment, in its attempt to guarantee African Americans and former slaves the right to vote, allowed for the exclusion of women's suffrage. We must be careful not to make a similar mistake.

Wayne D. Ridenour is a member of the Washington County Board of Education.

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