Board members debate conflict of interest when serving in various roles with district

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Conversation on who’s allowed to coach became rather heated during the Monday, Aug. 20, Chatfield School Board meeting as tempers flared over whether school board members should be allowed to coach or advise school activities.

The actual agenda was short, belying the impending arguments over Board Chairman Jerry Chase’s hope to once again be hired as a head softball coach, as he’d been in 2016 and apparently in other seasons.

Chase opened the meeting by calling for approval of the consent agenda, which included an item for his hiring as head softball coach. However, board member Lanny Isensee asked to have that item moved to the regular business agenda for discussion.

“I’m uncomfortable with somebody being in charge of a program being on the school board. If you’re the head of the program…you might be a great coach, but…I voted this way two years ago and I’ll vote the same now,” Isensee said.

Board member Scott Backer interjected, “I’m on the school board, I’m a parent and I coach a few sports. It is an issue, but the point that I’m saying is that these are positions of value. We’d be cutting the kids short if we did not coach.”

Board member Katie Priebe expressed her view. “I can see where the conflict would be. There are multiple reasons being the head coach could have conflicts,” she said. “How do you rebut (arguments) when you have a head coach who’s on the school board? It comes down to personal choice, but is there room for clouding? We come in to make decisions on financials and facilities.”

Board member Amy Jeffers added, “There have been concerns in the community about having a head coach be on the school board. The way I look at it, is it really worth it?”

Superintendent Ed Harris noted that statutorily, there isn’t a conflict of interest, as the Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA) has set an $8,000 limit on how much employees of the district can earn above and beyond their salaries and wages in their daily occupations while also coaching or advising school activities.

He said, “There is a place for chain of command, and while perception might be in existence, but how do you want to set the stage for years to come?”

Priebe pointed out, “Didn’t the board set a precedent two years ago? If you’re going to make a decision, personally, I think it’s ‘A’ or ‘B’.”

Backer acknowledged that in a small town, there is difficulty segregating duties amongst the residents — in order to make more than one thing happen, one person may be carrying out more than one role. “There’s a conflict of interest, a lot of it all over the place…children or spouses,” he said. “If we’re going to eliminate everybody because of that, it eliminates lots of potential to do good.”

Board member Matt McMahon referred to a list of limitations that define what roles most likely should not be taken on by employees or board members. “There’s a list of Schedule C things, or how many things we can’t be a part of,” he said. “When on the board, we’re wearing multiple hats, and you have to understand what hat you’re wearing. You can’t choose or individualize different groups — you need to set a policy and vote so that we know when we run (for school board) what we can and can’t do.”

He felt several empty positions would exist without the board members’ and employees’ ability to coach and voiced a need for a policy governing such. “We can’t be reactive,” McMahon said. “We’ve got to be proactive. The MSBA set rules that you can’t make over $8,000. We can’t step over them and think that we know more.”

Jeffers questioned McMahon, “Can you know what hat you’re wearing?”

Chase spoke up. “I have to go to the athletic director. I don’t have any power. If I don’t have that (power)…it’s (just) a position.”

Harris commented, “No matter how this goes, we have to make sure we know the chain of command.”

Loud arguing erupted between the board members, and Harris attempted to defuse the disagreement several times by explaining that the district has access to various school board mediation tools and that the board might fare better by choosing to drop the subject for the rest of the August meeting and carry on after finding more resources.

Priebe asked Chase, “In all honesty, how do you feel about this?”

Chase posited, “If I’m the eighth grade coach, then that’s okay?”

Isensee said, “You need to pick your mind. Do you want to be ‘here’ or ‘here’?”

Priebe asked Chase, “Personally, do you see no conflict at all?”

Backer stated, “For me, there is the problem of perceived conflict. I’ve coached my son in football. Are people going to think that I gave him the ball one too many times? It’s going to be there for all of us and we all have to deal with it. Don’t eliminate the really strong assets we have in the community. It’s about the kids. It’s not about him.”

Harris reminded the board members, “In one shape or another, this type of perception has existed. How do we deal with it? Don’t forget that all of you sitting here at this table are also an asset.”

Chase registered, “I told the (hiring committee) that if it came to a decision…(choose softball coaching). It’s sad because I know three board members already decided before we have a quorum. I already lost the job.”

Board members went on discussing the matter, still under duress of frustration, and McMahon reiterated that a policy needed to be set.

Fellow board members expressed their opposition to Chase’s dual role, with Jeffers saying, “I can’t support a dual role. He’s done a great job and been an excellent coach, but….”

That’s when McMahon made a motion to approve Chase’s coaching contract “with the understanding that he will resign Jan. 1, 2019.”

Harris advised McMahon that the board cannot force a member’s resignation, and Chase named that same evening as when he’d resign if he had to decide. “Today’s fine.”

Backer addressed McMahon. “To paraphrase, this means I also would have to resign and you maybe, too.”

Priebe suggested that board members might volunteer to advise or coach extracurricular activities, and some members agreed.

McMahon repeated, “We cannot work inside Schedule C. We’d be going over and above the MSBA.”

Harris tried, “I think this amounts to a pretty dramatic end that’s far above (what’s intended). I think this is very complicated and there’s a lot at stake for the district and its programs. There are alternate ways to facilitate this topic and how the district handles it. For more objective discussion, maybe we should put this off until September when we’ve had a chance to give more thought to the repercussions. That would be my recommendation. We certainly can table it.”

Chase answered, “From my perspective, if I’m going to be head coach, I need to start tomorrow. There’s too much to get done.” Priebe said, “I agree we’re approaching a cliff spot and that it’s a dangerous place to be.”

Backer raised the question, “Why are we saying ‘school board’? I totally agree there is a conflict. I’m taking this personally, too. I came to Chatfield as an educator interested in helping the kids in the community, and nothing more. If people don’t feel I’m an honorable person, they will complain to Ed and I won’t be back.”

Silence ensued as the board attempted to digest the task they’d set before themselves, and then confusion arose.

Ultimately, a vote was taken to approve Chase’s hire, and it failed 3-2 with Jeffers, Isensee and Priebe against and Chase abstaining.

Isensee called for an amendment to the motion to hire Chase to include the stipulation that he resign from the school board by Jan. 1, 2019. Jeffers seconded and a vote was taken that resulted in a unanimous 5-0, with Chase abstaining.

Superintendent report

Harris welcomed new elementary principal Shane McBroom to the district, stating that the board and administration is excited to have him serving his hometown school district.

Harris then gave an update on renovation construction at the high school, relating, “We’re progressing as quickly as we can. We’re on schedule to start school and everything we’ll need will be in place, but the front entry has some design concerns, so there will be a temporary sidewalk or ramp until those concerns can be addressed. In safety committee, we talked about whether there had been any types of adaptations to the building to enhance security, and we were able to achieve more visibility into the vestibule. We got some good input on security scenarios and feel that we’ve got a pretty sound start.”

Pay equity reporting was next in his update, and he remarked that while Chatfield’s schools had been flagged as out of compliance, the action taken to amend that had hopefully brought the district into compliance in the state’s eyes.

Other business

The annual reading of district policies included the student sex nondiscrimination policy, harassment and violence, student discipline, internet acceptable use and safety, and public data requests policies.

New business encompassed setting the annual truth in taxation hearing date for Monday, Dec. 17, at 7 p.m. and calling the school district general election to fill vacant school board seats.

Backer requested a delay of approval of the student and staff handbooks because he felt he hadn’t had enough time to properly review them. This request was met with the rest of the board’s agreement and the members approved a delay to the September meeting.

The consent agenda included posting a notice for snow removal quotes and the hires of preschool teacher Haley Brackett and preschool assistant Rachel Schieffelbein.