Some members of the board of education at the Spring-Ford Area School District want to change the district's current policy on nepotism, as relates to the hiring of new employees.
Board member Julie Mullin, who also chairs the policy committee, said the committee met on May 14 and nepotism was discussed heavily at the meeting. She gave a report to the board at Monday night's work session and a lengthy discussion ensued.
The district currently has three policies relating to nepotism with no restrictions on hiring family members of administrators or board members. The only exception is that a candidate must tell human resources that he/she is a family member of an administrator by the end of the interview process.
Now, board members are hoping to change that policy so that no family member of a board member or administrator can become a staff member within the Spring-Ford Area School District.
Mullin said Assistant Superintendent Allyn Roche pulled various nepotism policies from surrounding districts for review. Director of Human Resources Beth Leiss and Solicitor Marc Davis were also polled on a few concerns from the committee.
The main policy the committee supported was that of the Central Bucks School District, which does not allow direct family members to be new hires at the district. Those persons of interest include children, grandchildren, siblings, parents, grandparents or spouses. This is a much more narrow definition of family than Spring-Ford currently uses. The current definitions include foster children, stepchildren, and first cousins, just to name a few.
HR's Point of View
Leiss weighed in on the topic via email to Mullin, recommending the district not overhaul the current policy. She further clarified when asked for comment at the meeting.
"As I stated when I responded to Mrs. Mullin, I have concerns about the Central Bucks policy due to the black and white nature of it," Leiss said. "If our policy was tweaked a little bit and there was full disclosure in the beginning of the hiring process, it would suffice. However, I would be happy to support any policy the board decides on."
A Legal Point of View
The policy committee asked Davis how to go about grandfathering in current employees that may be related to board members or administrators, as well as what the definition of a temporary employee is and how to handle coaches and extracurricular activity advisors.
"As for grandfathering, he suggested the policy should not preclude those already in the district," Mullin explained. "For temporary employees, [it is defined as] someone not having the anticipation of continued employment. And for coaches and advisors, although they are appointed from year to year, we would not consider them as temporary positions."
The Next Step and Where it All Came From
Mullin continued and said the committee could not agree on a recommendation to make to the board. As the committee chair, Mullin said she made the "executive decision" to put the three existing policies back to the board along with the policy supported by the Central Bucks School District for a discussion and a vote.
Discussions on nepotism originally stemmed from board Vice President Joe Ciresi, who brought the idea to the table in . Ciresi said a few people in the community approached and/or called him about having such a policy in place. Ciresi made a motion after Mullin's report to move forward with a new policy that is "a little stronger than what we've had in the past that defines no member, director or administrator's families can work with the district as long as they serve with us."
"Some of the board members sitting here don't agree with this and I respect that," he said. "I feel we should vote on it one way or another."
Roche pointed out to the board that they should choose which definition of family they would like to use - the current and stricter definition, or the Central Bucks definition. Board members eventually agreed for the current definition as previously outlined.
Board member Edward Dressler seconded the motion, but Mark Dehnert asked why this is being put to a vote at this time.
"I find it unusual that we handle a school board policy that has not been examined by us or the public," Dehnert said. "There is no written policy. The way we pass policies is after a first and second reading and then a vote. We are deviating from the way we pass policies."
Davis agreed the policy requires first and second readings.
"Again, I think the presumption is 'Give us direction on what you want so we can put it on the agenda for a first and second reading,'" Davis said. "The board needs to understand where the majority of this is."
Board President Tom DiBello amended Ciresi's motion to send the revisions back to policy for finalization, incorporating the old definition of family with the Central Bucks policy, along with Davis' recommendations on grandfathering, temporary employees and coaches/advisors. Ciresi withdrew his motion and seconded DiBello's.
Dehnert said that administrators and board members will be affected by this new policy.
"Dr. Goodin said if the administration is above the board, then there should be no problem in hiring family members in either group," Dehnert recalled. "If they aren't above the board, then we have the wrong administrators in the district. School board members are volunteers. Unpaid. If a member has family interested in working for the district, we discriminate against that person."
Dehnert claimed the board has had difficulties fielding candidates for election over the past few years. He also cited the fact that he has a daughter who substitutes within the district. Had he known this policy would change so that she could not be hired, Dehnert said he would not have run and that this may be a factor in other people's choices to serve the board.
"That's why this has to come to a vote," Mullin said. "My priority is to have good teachers that got here on their own free will."
Board member David Shafer objected, preferring that this was a discussion and not an argument. He examined the situation in what he believed was in the interest of fairness.
"Fundamentally, what is driving this?" he said. "Help me understand the problem. I’ll give you some help here. Is it: are we attempting to be proactive to prevent future problems? Was there a particular instance or trend within the district that is contributing to a problem we can’t comment on in public? Is this a trend districts around the country are using this? Or do we want to support any data in relation to this? I have no personal agenda driving this. I’m trying to make a good decision based on the information we have at hand. Help me understand what’s driving the reason to do this and I may be a proponent for this. I don’t understand what the problem is."
Ciresi explained he was approached by a few people about the policy. He said they felt like a family member of a board member or administrator has preferential treatment.
"I was accused by Mrs. [Kathleen] Bryant of the cleaning company [Jani-King] being related to me through [my job at] The Kimmel Center."
Bryant was not in attendance at the meeting but was reached for comment on Tuesday morning.
"It is the uniquely American right and responsibility of all citizens to become fully informed on issues that affect public education," she said. "Elected officials should encourage and genuinely welcome direct questions from members of the public. Sadly, such does not appear to be the case in the Spring-Ford school district."
Ciresi further explained that Central Bucks is a progressive school district in the region and they have used that policy for quite some time. He also said there are many opportunities for employment with 500 schools in the Commonwealth.
"Yes, the market is limited right now," Ciresi said. "That goes both ways. It could appear we’re showing preferential treatment to 44 family members. I want to make it as clear as we possibly can. My feeling is moving the policy forward shows the community that 44 of us are here for benefit of the students. That it doesn’t appear we’re here because we want to get family and friends hired by the district."
Shafer determined that public perception and perhaps accusations is what is driving this initiative to change the policy. Ciresi admitted that was the case. Mullin gave a different answer.
"You keep asking if there’s a problem," she said. "I want to be ahead of the problem. Why not be proactive and have it in the books and let it not become an issue?"
Shafer said the board and district should have "leather skin" when it comes to public perception.
"I just want to make sure I understand what it is we’re pushing through here," he said. "If it’s to be proactive and better circumstances, I guess there’s benefit there. Unfortunately, making the right decision on things is not going to give you the best pub perception. Making the right decision is what we decide as elected officials. The public can come up and make comments personally and professionally to any one of us. That’s a part of the gig here. But it's based upon perception and not facts.
"It’s frustrating. But I don’t know that changing our hiring policy based upon having an administrator [Leiss] saying we don’t have a problem here is how we’re going to take a knick out of our public perception."
Dehnert said that Jani-King is a contracted company and has nothing to do with nepotism. He also said if the concern is public perception, then the public can also say a school board member's child received a specific award because his/her parent is a school board member.
"If someone makes up that accusation should we pass a policy that a school board member's child can’t do certain things?" Dehnert said. "That would be ridiculous. If someone in the public wants to make issue out of something, they’re entitled to do that."
School board member Dawn Heine agreed to a certain point, but explained hiring a person and awarding a student are two completely separate issues and that perception is reality.
Board member Bernard Pettit wrapped up the discussion.
"I don’t have a dog in this fight either," he said. "But, the purpose of nepotism in reading our present policies is to maintain an atmosphere based on the appearance of nepotism. The only way you deny the appearance of it is to bar it. Don’t allow it. Then there’s no appearance of it. Period."
The board voted 8-1 to send the Central Bucks policy with the requested revisions back to policy committee for finalization in June. Dehnert was the sole "nay" in the vote. The final decision would take place in August at the regular school board meeting. The board does not meet in July.