This is the final of five questions to the school board candidates. Question #5: What is the biggest lesson we should take away from the Peterson scandal from last winter and what steps would you take as a school board member to prevent its recurrence in the future?
Barbara Archer: The biggest lesson that we should take away from the Peterson issue is that a board member must always do what is best for the district even if his or her own child is involved in a situation. The board is revamping its conflict of interest and district complaint policies. These policies will include specific language on when a board member will need to recuse himself/herself from a vote and what to do if a board member’s relative is involved in a district-level matter.
In addition, this situation brought to light how much we need to be as transparent as possible with our finances. The legal bills for this case shocked many especially because so many community members are intimately involved in raising funds for district programs and positions, and to them, $20,000 is what their fundraising goal was, so it is significant to them. I believe that explaining district processes and expenditures to community members would help in understanding the liabilities the district must weigh.
Bob Poppenga: Over the last 6 months I have talked to many members of our community who have expressed disappointment and frustration with the way that the District handled the Nancy Peterson situation. One priority of the new School Board should be to find ways to regain community trust; this will take time and effort.
In my view there are several “take home” lessons from the Peterson controversy: 1) smart people don’t always know right from wrong or act ethically, 2) clear code-of-ethics and conflict-of-interest statements need to be prominently displayed on the District website and regularly reviewed by the Board, 3) policies and procedures for handling complaints against District personnel need to be in-place, publically accessible, followed, and regularly reviewed for effectiveness, and 4) people need to speak up, privately at first and publically if necessary, as soon as possible when individuals violate established code-of-ethics, conflicts-of-interest, or District policies and procedures.
As a School Board Trustee, I would advocate for the following in order to minimize the chances of a future incident occurring:
- adopting a clear code-of-ethics and conflict-of-interest statement for the Board. With regard to ethical behavior of board members, there are several templates that can be used. A quick Internet search identified Texas, New Jersey, and Connecticut as states with established codes-of-ethics (worth reading).
- publically and regularly (perhaps annually) reviewing adopted code-of-ethics and conflicts-of-interest statement to reinforce their importance to the conduct of District business. As a UCD faculty member, I am required to regularly review both ethical behavior standards and conflict-of-interest policies.
- publically and regularly reviewing all policies and procedures related to the proper handling of complaints against District personnel and modify them as needed.
- displaying a code-of-ethics and conflict-of-interest statement prominently on the Board’s website and make searching for relevant policies and procedures easy (in my view, this is not the case currently).
I believe that it is incumbent upon every Board member to seek the opinion of others if there is even a remote chance of the appearance of unethical behavior or a conflict-of-interest. I do believe that it would be difficult to conduct Board and District business if Trustees were prohibited from engaging in issues related to programs in which their own children participate or have participated or to schools attended by them. An appropriate code-of-ethics would help guide Board members in this regard. As the Connecticut Association of School Boards code-of-ethics states: board members “will strive to bring any needed change only through legal and ethical procedures” and they “will strive to help create public schools which meet the individual educational needs of all children regardless of their ability, race, creed, sex, or social standing.” The Code goes on to state that a board member will never use their position for their own gain (and by extrapolation the gain of their family) or that of their friends. Amen to that.
Chuck Rairdan: The biggest lesson I think from the Peterson scandal, aside from the enormous amount of damage that was done individually to Nancy’s standing as a board member, was the damage done to the entire school board’s ability thereafter to govern with a high level of trust and confidence from the community. In the case of Nancy, the saga was played out fully in the press. For the board as a whole, the collateral damage was not as obvious at first but certainly more significant in its impacts. The lack of foresight and intervention from fellow board members and decisive action by the district administration on what was clearly a train wreck in progress leads to some larger questions about the culture and objectivity of the school board in general.
One of the steps that can be taken going forward is to establish a clear understanding of what constitutes not only clear conflicts of interest, but also potential conflicts of interest that, if not recognized early and properly addressed, could lead to a repeat of needless scandals and further damage to the board’s credibility. Since ethics are not a matter of hard and fast definitions, the new board needs to have an explicit discussion about what the boundaries and triggers are for potential conflicts of interest and the process for resolving them in a timely manner.
With that understanding in place, if a board member chooses to go “rogue” or is not responsive to the rest of the board’s concerns, then a plan for how to minimize or prevent collateral damage needs to be set in motion. The idea here is not to quash dissent or censor fellow board members, but to preserve the board’s integrity in the aftermath of a runaway conflict of interest. The board should be guided in its decisions by the responsibility to represent the school district’s overall best interests rather than by the protection of individual relationships at the expense of this responsibility. This situation and others continue to make a strong case for more open and transparent board proceedings and a willingness to confront unpleasant circumstances in order to restore and maintain the community’s trust.
Mike Nolan: Serving as a School Trustee requires a strange balance. The candidate must have an ego big enough to seek election, and at the same time enough humility to realize that the office of Trustee is that of a public servant, who is only one of five members of the Board. But we know from history that all elected officials may be tempted to use their influence to advance their own personal or financial gain. To guard against this, the test is whether or not an action COULD be construed as a conflict of interest. The purest of motives are not enough. Unfortunately the Board has adopted an inadequate Conflict-of-Interest Code. for instance, while the Board allows a member with a conflict to attempt to influence a decision by addressing the Board “as a member of the public” during public comment time, the Attorney General has clearly stated that a conflicted member should have no part in any discussion, or attempt to influence the other members of the Board in any way, AT ANY TIME. If elected Trustee, I will push to strengthen the conflict-of-interest code to cover the appearance of both financial and personal conflicts.
Tom Adams: There are many lessons to be learned. Trustees must remember that they have an educational civic mission, and they must model the behavior that we want to see in our students. In addition, trustees should allow for teachers, principals, and coaches to do their job and recuse themselves from issues of personal involvement. Also, trustees should participate in the training on how to be a good and effective trustee that is given by the California School Boards Association and should plan on participating in learning opportunities throughout their tenure. Lastly, the trustees must be responsive to parents but remain focused on the needs of our students.
Madhavi Sunder: According to the Davis Vanguard, our school “district in the last four school years has spent more than a quarter million dollars on 11 investigations with almost no school board oversight over the expenditures, the hours billed, or even the outcomes.” A Trustee’s husband’s complaint against a volleyball coach “triggered a 100 hour, $22,000 investigation” by outside attorneys, who wrote a 72-page report at a cost of more than $200-an-hour. The School Board President told the Vanguard that the school board does not become aware of these investigations, or the hours and monies spent on them, unless there is an appeal. The quarter of a million dollars spent on outside investigators from July 2010 to February 2014 (as the Vanguard reported) could have paid for a teacher, nurse or counselor.
We need to revisit our district complaint process. The current approach is broken, consuming huge sums of taxpayer money without accountability, transparency, or oversight. We need to find alternatives to expensive outside investigators. A complaint alleging that a child was improperly removed from a sports team does not require the hiring of an outside lawyer, even if the complainant is a district official’s family member. The Davis school district could, for example, ask for an employee from a neighboring district to investigate on the promise that our district would reciprocate as needed.
Restorative justice practices may be better suited to resolving parent/teacher conflicts and allow for healing. Under this approach, the parties communicate with each other directly, allowing the victim to express concerns, and the accused to explain or apologize. Such processes may also be better for teacher and coach morale, which ultimately affects students.
We need to prioritize spending of precious taxpayer money on things that matter—teachers, counselors, and nurses.