Morris School Board tells new member she can’t lead parent group

OPPOSING VIEWS: Veteran school board member Nancy Bangiola, left, and newcomer Meredith Davidson, Jan. 22, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
OPPOSING VIEWS: Veteran school board member Nancy Bangiola, left, and newcomer Meredith Davidson, Jan. 22, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Meredith Davidson, the new member of the Morris School District board, must step down.

From the co-presidency of the Alexander Hamilton Home and School Association.

Meredith Davidson. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Meredith Davidson. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

That’s the verdict of the board, which on Monday voted 5-1, with Peter Gallerstein abstaining, to amend its code of ethics to prohibit members from serving in a “leadership role…executive in nature” in parent organizations, within school buildings.

Board members said it’s meant to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest–and situations where administrators and teachers might feel a trustee was meddling in their daily operations.

Davidson, who cast the lone dissenting vote, asked members to table the matter until the state School Ethics Commission could weigh in, but they declined.

She was gently admonished by board member Nancy Bangiola, a lawyer, for reaching out to the commission with words that implied she represented the board.

“Language that we choose matters…only the [board] president can speak for the board,” said Bangiola, expressing concerns that Davidson’s situation “really confuses the very healthy and collegial dynamic I have spent 15 years building” with educators.

Lisa Pollak, a veteran of 21 years on the Morris District board, was named its president, Jan. 2, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Board President Lisa Pollak, pictured on Jan. 2, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Board President Lisa Pollak, a retired attorney, took a sterner tack, telling Davidson that her matter was “small potatoes” and board members must pull together for the common good, even when they vehemently disagree with the majority.

“Some of our core values, Meredith, are that we are collaborative, we are consensus-driven, and we have and maintain a high level of trust with one another…we say what we mean and mean what we say,” Pollak said.

“We need to know that you’re with us…we have to be together. That’s what makes us strong and functional.”

RUN THAT BY ME AGAIN? Meredith Davidson, center, reacts to comment by Nancy Bangiola, left, as Peter Gallerstein listens, Jan. 22, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
RUN THAT BY ME AGAIN? Meredith Davidson, center, reacts to comment by Nancy Bangiola, left, as Peter Gallerstein listens, Jan. 22, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Davidson insists a 2000 opinion by the state commission found dual roles like hers are compatible.

“I just want to go on the record by saying this is not a cut and dry thing, and the School Ethics Commission has ruled that it is okay to be on the board and on the … HSA,” Davidson said.

In November she won one of the District’s first contested elections in years with a campaign promising to bring more transparency to the board.

Davidson did not indicate whether she will adhere to the new policy, nor was it clear how the District might enforce it. Board member Leonard Posey said the board attorney has vetted the policy.

From the audience, former Alexander Hamilton HSA Treasurer Gary Thomas questioned how the board could prohibit leadership roles in parent associations, yet adopt a lenient stance for members who serve on education foundations.

On Monday the board approved a companion amendment permitting foundation service if board members recuse themselves from certain board votes.

Board member Ann Rhines doubles as grant chairperson for the Morris Educational Foundation, which raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for District programs.

“I simply cannot understand how the two can be treated differently, especially when the major monetary potential conflict of interest is allowed to continue on a point-by-point basis, while the minor one is blanket restricted,” Thomas said in a letter to the board.

Morris School Board Member Leonard Posey, right, comments while Meredith Davidson and Peter Gallerstein listen, Jan. 22, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morris School Board Member Leonard Posey, right, comments while Meredith Davidson and Peter Gallerstein listen, Jan. 22, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Gallerstein concurred, abstaining because he favors stricter bylaws to save the board from sliding down this “very, very, very slippery slope.”

Board members who serve on the MEF may decide which schools, teachers and students receive –and don’t receive–grants. “To have a board member in that position is not right,” Gallerstein said.

Bangiola and Posey both said they learned the hard way about perceived conflicts.

For Posey, it was a parent’s grumblings when he served on a band booster club.

For Bangiola, it was a stint years ago as a volunteer music director for a play at the Normandy Park elementary school, where her kids were students.

In hindsight, Bangiola said, “I really shouldn’t have done that. It was not appropriate, and I didn’t know it.

“So I thought that a rule helping to clarify that would save someone from making the mistake I myself made.”

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, this smells fishy. They restrict the Board of Education member who is running HSA bake sales (over-simplified) but protect the Board of Education member who serves on the MEF board with a direct role in determining which schools and projects will get money? Stupidity! It sounds like maybe the MEF foundation may have too much influence on the Board of Education or maybe there is too close a marriage between the two groups, but it all sounds very inappropriate. If this policy must apply to Davidson, then it should apply to any Board of Education member who holds any position with a school related organization, even the MEF foundation. It is ridiculous that Rhines is permitted to serve on both the Board of Education and the MEF foundation, especially if she leads the grant committee and if her daughter is director – MAJOR conflict of interest on for so many reasons. She should be asked to resign from the Board of Education now and no MEF foundation members should be permitted to be on the Board of Education. This all just sounds fishier than a bait shop.

  2. This Board needs new blood. Amending a Conflicts of Interest policy to limit only the interests of a single board member is extremely suspect; all dual roles should be limited. Any Board needs true independence to be most effective and limiting only dual roles of the BOE and HSA/parent organization, but not a member who doles out thousands of dollars is borderline comical. To whom does the board’s feel accountable? The community of parents and students or the educators that Lisa Pollack has “spent 15 years building” relationships with…this ethics policy change suggests the later.

    I’ve never paid much attention to these elections, it sounds like our community needs pay attention and break up this fiefdom.

  3. Shame on this Board of Education. I hate bullies and this article made my blood boil this morning. The apparent mistreatment of Meredith Davidson by BOE members stinks of vindictive payback for Davidson defeating their friend. If there’s been BOE members with dual roles in HSAs before, why did they need to rush this vote and deliver Davidson a swift smack down, rather than waiting for the ethics commission guidance that Davidson requested? It’s absurd that the BOE ruled that the new policy wouldn’t apply to Anne Rhines and her role with the education foundation and that makes me wary of both groups. Given that Rhines represents a foundation, apparently led by her daughter, that reportedly grants a significant amount of funds to the schools, Rhines should resign from the BOE. It’s sad that this spiteful BOE action is impacting a willing school HSA volunteer and the Alexander Hamilton children will ultimately be the ones who will lose out. This Board of Education sounds like a gang of bullies.

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