By Madelynn Coldiron
School board members attending the inaugural session on ethics at KSBA’s annual conference were given two sticky scenarios involving possible conflicts of interest. Perhaps illustrating the nature of the topic, in each case there was no overwhelming agreement among them on how to respond.
“That’s a tough one,” said Trimble County board member Tony Walker to the first one.
That, in a nutshell, explains the session’s title: Ethics and school board service: black and white and gray.
PHOTO: Tony Walker, a Trimble County Schools board member, answers an ethics scenario with an electronic clicker during the new ethics training course required for board members.
“I think every bit of this is real-day stuff. In a member’s four-year term they’re going to run across several of those situations,” Walker said after the session. But, he added, while there may be ethical gray areas, “I think your ethics point of view really goes back to how your parents raised you.”
The ethics class is among the new requirements for school board member training and drew big crowds for the five times it was taught during the three-day conference. The focus was not on the legal aspects of ethics, but on other situations with ethical ramifications for public perception, board team working relationships and relationships with stakeholders.
Participants used electronic clickers to give their answers to those two sticky scenarios. Responding to the range of responses, presenter Brad Hughes, director of KSBA’s Member Support Services, said, “There are no wrong answers. If you perceive your answer to be correct for you, it’s probably correct. If everybody else perceives your answer to be unethical or incorrect, do you have some more thinking that you need to do?”
Besides the scenarios, attendees watched two short videos of board members behaving, if not badly, certainly questionably.
Outlining some examples of clear-cut situations in which board members demonstrate good ethics and plainly bad ones, Hughes said he’s found “there are a lot of grey areas, whether it’s group ethics or personal ethics.”
Potential conflict of interest, responsibilities outside the board meeting and differences in perception of ethical actions frequently crop up as grey areas, he said.
“It matters what other people think,” Hughes said. “Just because you say that you don’t have a conflict of interest, no matter how true it is, it does matter what other people think and it’s something you have to deal with.
Pitfalls in conflicts of interest include purchases and contracts, personnel, voting and personal relationships.
Boards often get in trouble not because of the decisions they make but how they make them, he said.
“More often than not, the transparent decisions that you make are the ones that – whether (constituents) like it or not – they’re at least going to have some respect for the process that you have.”
The clinic session also encompassed ethics as it relates to board and community relationships, from talking publicly about what was discussed in closed session to behavior at board meetings to making promises as individuals on behalf of the entire board.
When it comes to ethics that touch squarely on legal issues, boards should let their superintendents and board attorneys handle those, or consult KSBA’s Legal Services, Hughes advised.
He also suggested to attendees that board teams consider a code of ethics for their board. “I think it would be a pretty good message to send to the community when you start your meetings acknowledging that your board has a code of ethical actions by the school board.”
But, he warned, “If you adopt a code, you’ve got to live by it.”
Making ethical choices matters for school boards, Hughes said. The decision-making involved costs time, effort and money, he said, while unethical legal practices can create legal expenses. Perceived unethical behavior can hurt the district’s image in the public eye, and internally, hurt employee morale.