(Crystal A. Proxmire, May 1, 2017)
Ferndale, MI – With one Trustee recusing themselves and one no vote, the Ferndale School Board today voted to remove a policy that would prevent the hiring of a relative to the professional staff of Ferndale Schools.
The policy came to light when going through the interviewing process for a new principal for Ferndale High School. Ferndale Schools spokesperson William Good could not confirm the candidates for the position, but did say they are down to the final three candidates.
Board Trustee Nan Kerr-Mueller left the room and recused herself from discussion and voting in the matter of changing the policy. Kerr-Mueller’s husband is an educator who in 2013 was recognized by GM and the United Way as a “School Superhero” while working for Madison Public Schools. Currently he is Assistant Principal at Utica Public Schools. He was also a Gerstacker fellow in 2015.
The policy in question, Policy 3120, had conflicting language in it which said:
Relatives of Board members may be employed by the Board, provided the Board member does not participate in any way in the discussion or vote on the employment when a conflict of interest is involved.
The Board will not employ (but may reemploy) the children, siblings, spouse, parents, in-laws, or bona fide dependents (IRS criteria) of a current Board member, or a Board member who has resigned within the past year.
The third provisions, barring employment of a relative, had been added in 2015 without the preceding provisions being altered or removed. This created a conflict in the policy that was not noticed until the situation involving the principal search came up. The Board got a legal opinion in support of removing the third provision.
Prior to Monday’s vote, Ferndale School Board President Jen LaTosch was asked about the reasoning for supporting removal of the provision.
“The recommended change removes the provision of the policy that restricts the district from hiring family members of current and past Board of Education trustees. The reasoning behind the recommended policy change is to allow the district to at all times be in a position to recruit and hire the best candidates. This revision will also place Ferndale Schools’ Policy more in line with neighboring school districts, ideally making the district more competitive and welcoming. The legal opinion will certainly guide the discussion and process surrounding this section of Policy 3120, and the Board of Education will continue to ensure a fair and impartial review of all candidates for all positions,” she said. “The Board of Education is committed to serving the students of Ferndale Schools by ensuring the very best talent, regardless of their personal relationships, are considered for district positions. We will continue at all times to focus on the best interests of our students and the district as a whole when making decisions.”
When asked if the policy change might be considered nepotism, she said “The proper way to address potential issues is to acknowledge any relationship a candidate may have with a Board member, and if need be, have the individual Board member recuse themselves from any discussion or vote pertaining to that candidate.
“I want to reiterate that the recent review of this policy is not to benefit a specific person or for a specific opening. But rather to give our Administrators the latitude they need to identify and hire the best educators to serve our students. The Board is simply rectifying an inconsistency upon the guidance of our legal team. Failure to address the existence of this inconsistency in the policy would be neglectful.”
At the special meeting Monday, Trustee Jim O’Donnell said that the policy change in 2015 “was an over-reaction” to a concern of the Board at the time. He voted in favor of eliminating the provision, stating “I don’t think the optics of this, how things look, should drive policy decisions. It’s the board’s job to explain why we made the decision we made. …I don’t think we can afford to drive people away from the staff or the board.”
Karen Twomey gave the only dissenting vote. “I don’t feel that enough work has been done on these policies,” she said. “Realistically we’re talking about eight families in the Metro Detroit region… We have a depth of people in this community waiting to take our seats.”
She said that keeping the policy as it was, with the conflicting language, was a problem but that more thought was needed before making a change.
Jackie Hart had originally opposed removing the provision, but voted in favor of it in the end. “I didn’t want to make a knee-jerk reaction to update the policy because we have a potential conflict of interest in this situation,” she said.
Hart added the reason for changing her mind. “All of us have family members who would at some point quality for positions… and we would be doing a disservice [not to allow it.]”
For more information on Ferndale Schools visit www.ferndaleschools.org.