Unethical behavior in a school board can ultimately derail work performance and public reputation. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the Board to set the ethical framework for their organization and to provide the leadership and mechanisms necessary for compliance. Board oversight of ethical and professional standards is critical to ensure organizational alignment and transparency.
The school board is responsible for ensuring that appropriate procedures are established to deal with conflict: Occasionally a student and/or a student’s parents find themselves in conflict with a school. Most often, these conflicts are related to disciplinary matters, but they can relate to any aspect of school life including the program of studies, instructional or library materials, or extra-curricular activities. The Education Act, 1995 requires that school boards have procedures in place to deal with conflicts that may arise and that parents have immediate access to these procedures.
Ideally the procedures are designed to promote win-win solutions to problems rather than confrontation, and all procedures must be consistent with both provincial and federal legislation.
In exceptional circumstances, the school board may need to seek legal advice in these matters. Legal Services at the Saskatchewan School Boards Association is available to assist with this task.
Board Member Conduct
Duty of Loyalty: To act honestly, in good faith, in the best interests of the organization.
Duty of Care: To exercise the care, diligence and skill of a reasonable prudent person
Duty to Comply with the Act: complying to the letter and the spirit of the legislation, regulations and directives of the Government of Saskatchewan
As a trustee you will be required to conduct yourself at all times in a professional manner and to fulfill your fiduciary duty as a board member. That means acting in the best interest of the Board of Education, even when the needs of the board are in conflict with your own needs or desires.
This goes beyond simple conflict of interest where financial gain is at stake, but also means you must also put the needs of the board ahead of your own political aspirations. This is not always easily done. But if you follow the fundamental legal duties of school board members and treat them as values then ethical and effective conduct is assured.
The first of these duties is called the Duty of Loyalty, or your “fiduciary” duty:
- To act honestly, in good faith, in the best interests of the organization.
You are a fiduciary, a trustee looking after the business and affairs of a beneficiary who can’t look after their own business and affairs, the school board itself, and its beneficiaries, the students.
Once you accept a position as a board member in Canada, you are accepting appointment as guardian of a helpless child, the corporation, in this case, a school board. Not only must you act in this helpless child’s best interests, to guard its welfare and sustain it over the long term, but you also must decide what those best interests are. Your primary tool is your own experience and wisdom—your judgment. You are entitled to, in fact must, take into account the interests and views of everyone else in the helpless child’s life. However, you must not let any one of their interests prevail over the others. You listen, you weigh, you deliberate as a collective group of guardians. You agree on what is in the child’s best interest, then you act on it. Then you watch over the child’s welfare, and go through the whole process again, and again. And each time, you may weigh the competing interests slightly differently, to benefit the child over its lifetime.
In order to live the duty of loyalty as a personal value a board member must be direct and straightforward in their dealings and deliberations without breaking confidences. This duty also means that you will bring the voice of your constituents to the board, but still vote in favour of motions that are in the best interest of the board as a whole, even when they are at odds these same constituents.
The second of these duties is the Duty of Care:
- To exercise the care, diligence and skill of a reasonable prudent person.
We demonstrate care by attending and being prepared for meetings, following policy and procedures, speaking our mind and bringing our skills to bear on decision making.
The third of these duties is the Duty to comply with the Act.
That means complying to the letter and the spirit of the legislation, regulations and directives of the Government of Saskatchewan.
It is only when we act in a manner consistent with these duties that we can completely fulfill our board duties.
Conflict of Interest
A conflict of interest arises when the interests of a board member have the potential to be at odds with the best interests of the organization.
There are three kinds of “conflict of interest” that you may face:
- Direct: a narrow legal conflict of interest exists when you or an immediate family member stand to gain or lose money personally because of a decision before the board. For example, you or your immediate family member being considered for employment or contract for services;
- Indirect: when the financial gain is one step removed from you, for example, you are an officer or executive of a potential supplier to the school board, or of a charity where the school board is a major donor; or
- Perceived: when someone looking in from the outside perceives that you used your influence to get the board to make a decision that favoured someone or a group you have affinity with or loyalty to. For example, a contract being awarded to a neighbour, someone you went to school with, or your local community.
To differentiate them, the second and third types are sometimes called “conflicts of loyalty”.
A pretty good “gut test” for a conflict of interest is to ask: “How would this look as front page news?” Would readers understand what happened and why? How would the organization’s reputation be affected? What do your colleagues think? Is it a conflict from their perspective? What counsel do they give you?
As a member of the school board, you must not put yourself in a conflict of interest situation.
- You cannot have a direct contract with the school board, such as an employment contract or a contract to supply goods or services. The only money that you can accept from the school board is your per diem payment and payment for expenses such as traveling expenses.
- The Education Act, 1995 does not deal with indirect contracts, such as an employment or service contract that your spouse, child, other relative, or very close friend may have with the board. However, for the sake of your personal credibility and reputation in the community, it is important that you avoid any perceived or real conflict of interest. If the board is discussing an employment or service contract with one of your relatives, leave the room, before and during discussion and decision, and ask that your absence be recorded in the minutes.
If you are found in conflict of interest, you will lose your seat and you may also be subject to a fine or a prison term.
In addition to the statutory conflict of interest provisions for school contracts, school board members must be careful to ensure they bring an open mind to all the important business of the board. Board members should consider only relevant matters when deciding upon issues, and ensure that their minds are free from improper biases.