Roaring Fork Schools board weighs conflict of interest policy update
The Roaring Fork School District Board of Education is poised to adopt a revised conflict of interest policy that bans full-time employees from serving simultaneously on the school board but allows board members to work part-time for the district.
The proposed policy, which will have a second reading at the school board meeting Wednesday, is unlike those of most Colorado school boards in allowing simultaneous part-time work. And it is an important caveat, given staffing shortages in the district, and considering that a current board member who just finished the first year of a four-year term is a part-time substitute teacher.
The Board of Education began to revise the policy as part of a routine review — the latest revision of the conflict policy was approved in 1998 — but as the district staff and the board discussed it, the conflict policy became something different.
“In our community we are at a critical shortage for filling many part-time positions,” Jen Rupert, president of the Board of Education, said.
Bus drivers, substitute teachers, janitors, cafeteria workers, coaches and other mostly part-time staff are in such short supply that the board felt it would be unwise to limit anyone from applying to those jobs.
If a school board member was needed to drive a bus part time and was qualified, for example, he or she should be allowed to do so.
“We really felt strongly as a board that we allow every opportunity to take these roles when they can step into them,” Rupert said.
Prior to the revision, the RFSD school board had no stipulation about simultaneous employment.
The vast majority of Colorado school districts prohibit district employees from serving on school boards. Only six of the 40 Colorado school districts with more than 3,000 students allow board membership to be employees, according to a RFSD staff report.
Some districts smaller than 3,000 make some variation of acceptable employment, but in general that part of the policy is not correlated to district size.
Garfield Re-2 in Rifle, Silt and New Castle, which is smaller than RFSD at 4,980 students, prohibits school board members from being employed by the district. RFSD has 5,212 students.
The Colorado Springs School District 11 board, which serves 29,498 students, updated its conflict of interest policy without prohibiting simultaneous employment.
“We adopted this policy differently than other school districts so that we could best meet the needs of our community and support our teachers and support what they do,” Rupert said.
The Roaring Fork policy would allow board members to be part of such services as “coaching, part-time paraprofessional work, driving school buses, ticket-taking at athletic events, substituting in any area, and/or temporary positions,” according to the draft.
Jennifer Scherer, who helps out at Basalt schools as a substitute teacher, ran unopposed for District E, which includes Basalt, and began her four-year term in November 2017. Scherer did not return a request for an interview. It is policy for the president to serve as spokesperson once the board has made a decision, several board members said.
Rupert said Scherer’s position as substitute teacher was not a factor in the board’s decision not to exclude part-time employees from the board.
The conflicts policy requires all members, regardless of occupation, to recuse themselves in matters where they have a “pecuniary interest that is immediate, definite and demonstrable and which is or may be in conflict with the public interest.”
That language is unchanged in the revised policy, which raises the question of what sort of school board decisions don’t affect, for instance, a substitute teacher. (Scherer recused herself from the Oct. 24 board meeting vote on whether to advance the proposed policy.)
Rupert said in the past year, Scherer’s substitute teacher position has not been an impediment to the function of the board, and recusals have been rare.
In an October memo to the board, a legal advisor noted that allowing part-time staff to be on the school board would not necessarily reduce the appearance of conflicts. The “part-time aspect may not substantially reduce the amount of actual conflicts, and the number of perceived conflicts may not be changed in any meaningful way,” the memo said.