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March/April 2011

To protect your name, avoid these pitfalls

The question for this issue is answered by Anna Lovern, IASB director/ policy services, and Melinda Selbee, IASB general counsel, updating an earlier Journal article by Jerry Glaub.

Question : How can I protect my reputation and make certain things I do are above reproach while I serve as a school board member?

Answer : Your good name is your most prized possession — no doubt your good name, including your reputation for honesty, had a lot to do with your being elected to your local school board.

Unfortunately, school board members sometimes find themselves in situations where their reputations are at risk. You don’t have to be dishonest to break the law; you can break it unintentionally. Or you can share the blame when others break it. And a reputation for honesty is almost impossible to regain once you’ve lost it.

The areas where school board members are most likely to put their good names at risk include violating the Open Meetings Act, abusing travel expense policies, providing jobs for relatives, holding a financial interest in district contracts, and neglecting to assure that adequate records and minutes of meetings are kept and open for public inspection. These and many other areas are addressed in the board policy manual, so one of your first objectives should be to familiarize yourself with that document.

Following is a brief review of both the legal and public relations pitfalls that you, as a school board member, need to consider in order to protect your good name:

Open meetings

The Illinois Open Meetings Act states clearly that actions of public bodies are to be taken openly and that their deliberations are to be conducted openly. That said, the Act lists reasons for when a school board may convene in closed session and the procedures for closing a meeting or a portion of a meeting. The Act applies any time “a majority of a quorum” of a school board meets to discuss public business. However, a quorum must be present to hold a meeting. The law applies to board committees as well as to the full board.

In order to bar “secret” meetings, the law requires that public notice of all meetings, both open and closed, be given. This may include posting a notice and agenda on the school board’s website. At any properly noticed open meeting, a school board may, without additional notice, hold a closed meeting, provided all of the other requirements are met for going into closed session.

It is not necessary to be an expert in all the intricacies of the law to avoid violations. Simply keep in mind that the overriding purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to assure that a public body does its work in the public view. Unless individual privacy rights or the interests of the district are at stake, debate, deliberation and decision making are to take place only in an open meeting.

While certain violations can lead to criminal charges, the real danger is to fall into a pattern of overusing closed meetings to discuss public business. The community will quickly lose trust in the board and the district will lose the support of its community.

Chapter 3 of IASB’s “Coming to Order: A Guide to Successful School Board Meetings” outlines the legal requirements for meetings to comply with provisions of the Open Meetings Act. In addition, the legal component of IASB’s new board member workshops details meeting requirements.

Travel expenses

School board members need to travel to educational meetings and the cost of such travel is a legitimate district expense — including the cost of registration or tuition fees at workshops and conferences. The School Code empowers your school board to reimburse members for expenses associated with educational meetings.

However, state law does not guarantee reimbursement for such expenses. The school board must authorize the reimbursement. Your board should have a policy that defines the kinds of meetings for which it will authorize travel and the process necessary to qualify for reimbursement, e.g., what vouchers and receipts are required.

The law requires that expenses be “actual and necessary” and directly associated with the meeting itself, including travel to and from the meeting. It specifically bars reimbursement of expenses for anyone other than the board member, meaning expenses for family members who accompany you are not reimbursable.

To guard against violations of the law and the appearance of dishonesty, here are three suggestions:

1) Keep a complete record of your expenses while on school district business and be prepared to provide the documentation required by your board.

2) Encourage your board to develop an understanding of reasonable expenditures that will be acceptable in your community. Community standards will vary, but also keep in mind that limits on expenses should vary with the location and take any special circumstances into account. A common request under the Freedom of Information Act is for copies of expense receipts.

3) When deciding whether a particular expense should be reimbursed, ask yourself whether it was necessarily related to your trip and to the meeting. For example, costs associated with sightseeing that weren’t part of the meeting are not reimbursable. Obviously, there is some latitude in determining what is “actual and necessary.” If your board has not determined what is reimbursable in terms that are as specific as possible, encourage members to have that discussion so that everyone understands what is expected.

Keep in mind that travel on behalf of your school district should not profit you. Neither should it cost you money. A good philosophy is that you won’t benefit at the expense of the district, and the district won’t benefit financially at your expense.

Hiring relatives

It is not uncommon for school board members to have relatives who are employed by the district. This is particularly true for small districts where both the pool of job applicants and the pool of people willing to run for a seat on the board are small.

Illinois has no law that prohibits the hiring of relatives. However, a board member’s good name may be placed at risk by hiring relatives or friends if others perceive that the person was hired due to favoritism and not because he or she was the best qualified applicant for the position. If a pattern or practice of hiring relatives, regardless of their qualifications, is established in a district, community confidence in the board may be eroded. Such a practice sends a message that employment decisions are not based on merit but that “who” you know is more important than “what” you know.

Beyond the question of hiring, other ethical aspects of this issue are not all straightforward. What if the board is voting to approve a new teachers’ contract, and the deciding vote must be cast by a member whose spouse is a teacher? What if the decision to re-employ a probationary teacher hinges upon the vote of that teacher’s spouse? Should the board member refrain from voting? The law doesn’t provide a clear answer to these questions. The answers lie in the specific facts of the situation and in the conscience of the individual board member.

Interests, gifts and activities

The School Code allows a board member to hold a very modest interest in a school district contract, assuming that a number of specified conditions are met. A school board member may not be employed by the district he or she serves unless the pay is less than the statutory contract limit. Violation of the law is a felony, so compliance is a given.

Another law prohibits school board members from accepting expensive gifts from individuals or companies doing business with the district or that otherwise have an interest in the district. Board members should carefully review the exceptions to this law before accepting expensive gifts from other than family and friends. The same law also identifies prohibited political activities. Determining what political activities are prohibited depends on the context and the activity.

Presented with an opportunity to do business with the district, however, a board member needs to consider appearances as well as legality. Is there someone else who can provide the material or service just as well as the board member? If not, is that fact well known in the community?

Self-serving conduct may result in accusations of misconduct even if the conduct was legal. In addition to avoiding self-serving conduct, you may avoid the appearance of impropriety by disclosing and explaining the interest and/or by refraining from voting on any matter that will financially affect you or a family member. Keep in mind that a transaction approved by the school board that is perceived as dishonest affects all members of the board, not just the one who is personally involved.

Records and minutes

The public policy of Illinois is that access to public records promotes transparency and accountability for public bodies. The Freedom of Information Act makes it a fundamental obligation of government to provide public records as expediently and efficiently as possible. A school board that operates with the mindset that these mandates should be “gotten around” because they are too burdensome risks being perceived as unreliable, unbelievable, even unethical.

Good records of financial transactions and board meetings are essential, especially if a school board action is ever challenged. It may seem like wasted effort — until a legal authority comes into your district to investigate a complaint and finds there is no evidence that you have been obeying the law. The question people will ask is: “If you have nothing to hide, why have you hidden it?” Even an entirely innocent person can be convicted in the court of public opinion.

Although it is possible to go to unnecessary extremes, board members need to know that the board’s financial records show that there has been no misuse of public funds. By the same token, minutes of meetings should show what the board did (or did not do). Minutes must also demonstrate compliance with the Open Meetings Act. Minutes and all district records must always be readily available for public inspection.

While you can’t oversee the district’s recordkeeping operations, you can monitor them with the goal of full compliance with state law and appropriate business practices. The failure to ensure proper recordkeeping and open access to records will surely lead to the loss of community trust.

Obviously, it isn’t always easy to be above reproach. But if you keep your eyes and ears open in the five areas discussed above — and keep openness and reasonableness foremost in mind — you’ll avoid most of the dangers to your good name. In fact, you might even enhance it by developing a wider reputation for protecting the public’s interest.

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