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Setting a Higher Standard for Conflicts of Interest

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By James Fogarty

I have no doubt that the members of Pittsburgh’s Board of Education care deeply about the students in our schools and the quality of education they receive. They serve on a volunteer basis for one of the most complex and demanding roles in our city, and they deserve our respect.

However, I was troubled to hear that my call that Board members that would stand to benefit financially from the passage of the new teachers’ contract should recuse themselves was considered “disturbing” by the School Board President Regina Holley and “unfair” by the District’s Solicitor Ira Weiss during the Board’s Legislative Session held last night.

On Monday, I delivered testimony about the yet-to-be ratified contract during the School Board’s monthly public hearing. The full testimony is available here.

Mr. Weiss is rightly considered THE expert in Pennsylvania education law in our region. He has advised numerous boards in good and bad times. I do not dispute his reading of the State’s Code of Ethics, which allows for Board Members to vote on matters of a general nature (like a school board contract) when a benefit might accrue to that Board member through their immediate family or in compensation they might receive as a retiree.

The argument I was trying to make (which the Board’s policy of 3-minute public testimony with no dialogue or opportunity for questions from the Board makes it all the more difficult) is that the Board would do well to exceed the legal standard that Mr. Weiss rightly stated.

There is a crisis of confidence in our public schools. A crisis that we all are responsible to address. We have seen over 2,000 students leave the district in the last four years. Gaps in opportunity and achievement remain unacceptably high between Black and White students. Seventy-three percent (73%) of 3-8th graders are not doing math at grade level according to state tests. We all know there’s much work to do, and we need to create the belief that change and improvement is possible. And, that transparency and accountability are common practice.

One way to instill confidence by the public in the school board’s ability to govern, is to be beyond reproach by abstaining from matters where possible that would create the appearance of a conflict of interest. It would remove doubt about whether a decision is being made in the best interests of children or in the best interest of the board member as an individual.

My call on the board was to remind them that the public has concerns about the ethical questions raised by having members who might benefit from the contract. The easiest and best path of action, one that should not impede the Board approving a hard-fought contract, would be to eliminate any doubt that the children of Pittsburgh are, in fact, their main priority.

I hope my advice will be taken in the spirit it was given. As someone who sends my child to Pittsburgh Public Schools, I am a believer in their ability to educate all children well, even if that’s not happening at all schools at the moment. I know that the members of the Board believe the same. Let’s get to work to make that happen. Stay tuned for another post about another point I made in my testimony Monday: the need to strategically staff our highest-need buildings.