Misunderstanding a Conflict of Interest

Misunderstanding a Conflict of Interest

by MICHAEL T. ADAMSON

Superintendents often face challenges when making personnel recommendations to school board members, especially when they or members of their board have family members employed by the school district. Relationships can become strained during discussions about salaries, discipline or reductions in force affecting these family members.

 

Board-Savvy_AdamsonMichael Adamson

However, it can be much more convoluted than that. Many small, rural school districts contract their student transportation with private bus contractors who are, more often than not, owner/operators within their community. This is an economical practice throughout our state to control transportation costs rather than maintaining a fleet of buses.

Consequently, when several members of a school board, and often their spouses, are also contracted bus drivers, well, let’s just say the contract bidding is pretty interesting. Additionally, to make matters even more uncomfortable, the superintendent or a subordinate responsible for transportation, is now the “boss” of those board members who are contracted to provide transportation services. That scenario screams conflict, right?

Well, it certainly has every ingredient for an uncomfortable working relationship but not necessarily a legal conflict.

A Suspect Vote
Many people misunderstand conflicts of interest, believing situations such as this one always constitute conflicts of interest. In reality, most prove not to be legal conflicts, including this particular bus driver scenario. To have a legal conflict of interest, people most often have a financial interest in a recommendation being promoted or in a decision they are being asked to support. In these cases, a board member’s vote or a superintendent’s recommendation would be suspect because his or her financial interests conflict with the ability to be objective in the decision-making process.

So what about the bus driver issue? The technicality here is that these bus drivers, although school board members, are not school employees, but private contractors paid to provide a service. Consequently, as long as they do not vote to award their own contract, no legal conflict exists.

Where legal conflicts exist, board members are required to file conflict-of-interest statements that clearly disclose the nature of potential conflicts. These are most often situations when a board member has a spouse employed by the school district or when a member directly benefits from a business proprietary relationship with the district. Then, when administrative recommendations appear on the meeting agenda requiring board action that affects personnel or businesses where members have a fiduciary stake, these board representatives usually abstain from the decision-making process, citing their conflict.

In reality, legal conflicts rarely are an issue. School boards do a good job of guarding against those. However, all conflicts of interest, whether legal, ethical or perceptual, have the potential to create controversy and discomfort for superintendents and other administrators when the conversation turns to salary and performance discussions.

Regardless, it is this distinct difference between the legal definition of a conflict of interest and the perception of a conflict that provides superintendents and administrators the ability to objectively engage in these types of discussions. A superintendent always should promote an appearance of impartiality, whether or not a legal conflict exists.

This is critical to maintaining credibility in these circumstances, and recommendations and actions must mirror those that would be reflected if no conflict existed. To do otherwise is to compromise executive leadership credibility, and that damage can be irreparable.

Personal Entanglements
The key to dealing with these issues is to make sure to avoid the personal side of the situation. Talking about how bad you feel or how you wish you did not have to make a recommendation does not inspire confidence and, besides, you are not actually upset with the recommendation at all. You are upset with whom you have to share it because you anticipate a reaction that is less than appreciative of the recommendation, not to mention the resulting fallout.

Consequently, be sure to keep your recommendations on a strictly professional basis. If the issue is performance-related, be certain that the established evaluation process and policy have been followed appropriately and are documented. When dealing with financial recommendations, be certain the recommendation is aligned with your district goals and salary guidelines.

The goal is to desensitize the situation, not avoid it. Inevitably, bad news is simply bad news. One way to depersonalize the comments is to show that the obvious course of action represents the best interests of the school district. This will more likely earn the board’s endorsement.

As a superintendent, your credibility depends on how you make recommendations and whether you take the most appropriate action in every circumstance. This is especially true when those actions and recommendations may affect board members personally, with or without a conflict of interest.

Michael Adamson is director of board services for the Indiana School Boards Association in Indianapolis, Ind. E-mail: madamson@isba-ind.org