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Keep School Boards Conflict-Free

By Benjamin DeGrow

Potential conflicts loom that could threaten the integrity of Colorado’s public school boards. Most states will not let someone simultaneously work for a school district and serve on the school board. Colorado has no such law. Individual school districts must decide, and less than half of the 25 largest districts have policies prohibiting this particular conflict of interest.

Citizens elected to their local school board face an important responsibility: they must set goals and build policy for the administrators who manage the affairs of public education on a daily basis. They must oversee the public resources available to them in a way that best promotes students’ interests.

But the self-interest of a district employee serving on the school board may clash with the public interest. Voting to approve the contract that determines one’s own salary is the clearest conflict. Any decision affecting the use of district resources also affects the availability of funds to pay employees. If a board member appoints the superintendent to whom he will answer in his own job, the board member creates further conflict.

A board member employed by the district cannot abstain from enough votes to avoid all conflicts of interest and still serve effectively. The community that elects the board member needs her to make judgments on policies and budgets, but too many decisions before the board also affect the employee’s professional duties and personal finances.

In the 1973 Wyoming case of Haskins v. State ex rel. Harrington, Ray W. Haskins, a 15-year teaching veteran from Wyoming’s Park County School District No. 1, won a local school board election. But three of his fellow board members protested and filed suit.

The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled against Haskins, holding that a teacher and school board trustee were incompatible offices, because a teacher “is continually and inescapably under the jurisdiction and authority of that board.” Despite “all good faith and without thought of personal gain,” a teacher’s goals would inevitably conflict “with the resources of the district and the general standards of the community.”

In the Haskins decision, Wyoming’s justices applied the state’s common-law principle against holding incompatible offices. America’s Founders also espoused this principle. Many Founders were deeply suspicious of the British king’s practice of installing “placemen” (those who worked for or owed debts to the Crown) in Parliament. When infiltrated by royal influence, the Parliament could not effectively check the monarch’s power.

Thus the delegates to America’s Constitutional Convention added the following language to Article I, Section 6: “No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States…” This fundamental law has helped to ensure the separation of the federal government’s legislative and executive branches for more than 200 years.

The Wyoming Supreme Court applied a similar principle to school boards and district employees; so have 29 other states. Colorado is not among them, however. Only 11 of Colorado’s 25 largest school districts have any sort of board policy prohibiting someone from simultaneously holding employment and board membership.

Seven of those 11 districts make a further distinction: they deny new employment contracts to current board members but allow someone who is already an employee to keep her position if she wins election to the school board. Yet simply removing the option for a board member to hire himself is not enough. Deep and significant conflicts of interest exist regardless of when the board member’s employment with the district began.

Corporate shareholders avoid conflicts of interest by keeping paid employees off the board of directors. Conflicts of interest are just as much of a problem on school boards as on corporate boards. Like their corporate counterparts, school board members should not be employees of the organization they are supposed to oversee.

Currently, four of Colorado’s 38 school districts enrolling 3,000 or more students have an employee serving on the board. It would be better for all Colorado public school boards to be kept free of conflicts of interest so they can make the best decisions for the communities they serve.

(c)2004 The Independence Institute