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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”