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Living in Society

School Board Conflicts of Interest

In the many and complicated discussions between voters, social media users, bloggers and candidates the 2021 Solon School Board election has generated some concerns about conflicts of interest. They can be addressed.

The Iowa Association of School Boards has specific guidelines about conflict of interest for school board members. I clipped the following image from their website.

Concerns about conflicts of interest were raised about Dan Coons, Stacey Munson and Cassie Rochholz. I’d point out the district has counsel that could guide the board through potential conflicts of interest and how to handle them. I’m not an attorney and am just reading information that is commonly available to voters. Here’s where we are:

In his response to my questionnaire, Kelly Edmonds asserted the following:

Dan Coons and Stacey Munson have spouses who work for the district, they would have to recuse themselves from voting or even being part of the upcoming 2023 contract negotiations.

Kelly Edmonds via email Oct. 8, 2021.

The Iowa Association of School Boards addresses this directly. “Iowa law does not prohibit a school employee’s spouse from serving on the school board.” While it may make some voters uncomfortable to have a school board member with a spouse that works for the schools, in my reading of the IASB site, it is permissible. If this matters to a voter, there are plenty of good candidates from which to choose.

What about upcoming contract negotiations in 2023? Wouldn’t spousal relationships affect them? We can look back to the communications disaster that was the 2019 negotiations and learn.

In 2017 the Iowa Legislature removed much of what could be collectively bargained with public employee unions. The way the board presented contract options in 2019 in light of the new law was more the problem. Every school employee had an opportunity to know the legislature gutted the collective bargaining law. The school board chose to bludgeon employees in the represented bargaining unit with the fact the law changed. As we saw in the 2019 school board elections, despite whatever anti-incumbent movement was created by contract negotiations, voters chose incumbent Adam Haluska for reelection. The school board’s handling of contract negotiations alienated teachers and community members.

Conflict of interest, in my view, is low on the priority list of issues as it relates to collective bargaining. Communications between parties is a more important issue. If I had advice for that school board it would be to avoid use of legal counsel to state the obvious.

The question of whether Cassie Rochholz’ employment with Edmentum represents a conflict of interest is more relevant.

At Edmentum, a single mission guides and inspires us as it defines our core purpose and the contribution we make to society: Founded in innovation, we are committed to being educators’ most trusted partner in creating successful student outcomes everywhere learning occurs. To help us work toward that mission while operating business, our key values guide our priorities and are evident in everything we do.

Edmentum mission and values statement from their website.

Edmentum sells learning solutions to schools, including those in the district. Cassie Rochholz has worked there as a director since December 2019, according to her LinkedIn profile. According to the IASB website, the restriction regarding conflict of interest is specific: “prohibiting being an agent of a textbook or school supply company selling to the district.” Rochholz was asked about this on her public Facebook page and I clipped the following discussion:

Cassie Rochholz campaign Facebook page.

I confirmed Edmentum products were used in the Solon School District. The basic framework of this concern is accurate: there is a potential conflict of interest in that Rochholz’s employer, where she is a director, sells to the district. Rochholz has addressed it. It is now up to voters to decide if her explanation is sufficient.

Conflict of interest is “in the weeds” of what voters look for in a school board candidate. Voters do appear to be interested in learning more about the candidates in 2021. Not many vote, though. 1,225 voters went to the polls in the 2019 school board election. The candidates got votes as follows:

Johnson County Auditor website.

If the 2021 school board election is like 2019, every issue will matter to voters. In my view, concerns about conflict of interest are reasonable. Candidates for office have a responsibility to address voter concerns on this or any topic. Any board member may have to recuse themselves for a number of reasons. Administrative staff has the resources to determine an appropriate course in specific situations or on specific votes. Concerns about these specific conflicts of interest, in my opinion, don’t rise to the level of being actionable. They certainly don’t disqualify anyone. In any case, voters should look at the whole person when selecting three on Nov. 2. There are seven candidates, each of which has much to offer and could be considered for the board.

Click here for all of my coverage of the Solon School Board Election.

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