It has been said many times: 2020 has been an extraordinary year. Given the multitude of unique challenges that schools have met since the beginning of the year, it is sometimes difficult to focus on those laws that were in place before March 2020 and still affect school board members and staff. For example, the Ethics Law and related statutes continue to apply to district officials and employees notwithstanding building closures, hybrid learning models, virtual parent-teacher meetings and all of the other unique situations this year has presented.

Here are a couple of quick reminders of issues that come up frequently in school districts and may be even more likely to be raised during the pandemic.

Board member as coach/official

Right now, boards may be having difficulty finding people who are willing to coach teams or officiate at sporting events. In the April 2019 Ohio School Board Journal, the According to Law column focused on the question of board members also serving as coaches. The article, which is based on an Ohio Ethics Commission staff opinion issued in January 2019, explains the restrictions in detail. The basics are:

  • A board member cannot be employed or otherwise compensated by the district to serve in a coaching position.
  • A board member can volunteer as a coach but cannot receive any kind of compensation for serving in that role.
  • If a board member is volunteering as a coach, she cannot participate in matters before the board that affect employees of the district’s athletic department.

One variation of this question is whether a board member can be paid to act as an official in sporting events involving or held at the district’s schools. This also is banned if the board member is compensated for officiating by his or her own district or by a third party (such as ArbiterSports) that receives money from the district for that game. The board member would have a financial interest in a contract of the district, which is prohibited by both RC 2921.42 and RC 3313.33.

Gifts and holiday remembrances

To take liberties with former Cincinnati Reds’ radio announcer Joe Nuxhall’s sign-off, we’re rounding third and heading for the holiday season. This year, parents, caregivers and others may be especially eager to recognize and express gratitude for the significant role teachers, administrators and other district officials and employees are playing in the lives of students.

This Ethics Commission publication is a great overview of the restrictions on gifts that apply to all public officials and employees, including those serving with school districts. In a nutshell, a district official or employee is prohibited from accepted a gift of substantial value from anyone who is doing or seeking to do business with, regulated by, or interested in matters before the district he or she serves. There is no dollar value over which a gift becomes too valuable. The commission has said that things like golf outings, theater or sporting events tickets, vacations, and jewelry are all things of substantial value. If the giver of the valuable gift is a district vendor, a parent, a student or someone else with an official connection to the district, a school board member or district employee can’t accept it.

What about gifts to teachers? Teachers can accept modest gifts (like coffee mugs, t-shirts or books) from students or parents. However, teachers are prohibited from accepting anything of any value that is provided to them as compensation for the performance of their job duties.

Finally, the ethics law doesn’t prohibit a school district from receiving a donation, even if the donation is a substantial thing of value. As explained in this recent Ethics Commission publication, a donation is acceptable if it is voluntary and cannot be given “with the purpose of improperly influencing public officials or employees with respect to their duties.” The donation must be made to the district and not to a specific district official or employee. District officials or employees who use donated equipment should not endorse the purchase of that brand of equipment, particularly when the donor is a vendor or manufacturer who will profit from the sale of the equipment.

Working from home

During the pandemic, some school district employees may be working at least part time from home. The Ethics Commission has devoted the most recent issue of the Voice of Ethics newsletter to ethics issues that can be raised when public officials and employees are working from home.  Among the issues discussed in the newsletter are the use of public time and resources, job seeking, and seeking or accepting financial assistance. The newsletter is a concise overview that could be shared with officials and employees who are working from home to help ensure that school staff are complying with the Ethics Law will engaged in these activities.

As always, the staff of the division of legal services will be keeping abreast of new or revised resources, from the Ethics Commission and other public agencies, that are helpful to district officials and employees. Information will be posted as it becomes available so make sure you follow this blog!

Posted by Jennifer A. Hardin on 10/23/2020