CARY — Wake County school board members found by their colleagues to have committed ethical violations would face punishment ranging from reprimands to the threat of criminal charges, under a policy change that won committee approval Tuesday.
The school board itself would pass judgment on members’ actions under the proposed revisions to the board’s code of ethics. The revisions would establish a process for investigating complaints and taking disciplinary action.
The changes were prompted by former Chairman Ron Margiotta’s revelation, based on details from closed-session discussions, that newly hired Jim Merrill was the top choice for superintendent before it was publicly announced.
“We need to have something in place to enforce our code of ethics,” said Jim Martin, chairman of the policy committee.
According to the proposed change, complaints of violations of ethics, the law or board policy would be reviewed by the chairman, the superintendent and the board attorney.
The accused board member would be given the opportunity to respond to the charges, with the chairman would be authorized to hire “outside professionals” to help with the review. Members did not discuss costs associated with the policy.
If the review determined that a violation had occurred, the issue would be referred to the full board. If two-thirds of board members present agreed in open session, actions could include:
• A verbal or written reprimand.
• A request for resignation.
• Referral to the Wake County District Attorney for criminal charges and/or possible removal from office.
State law no longer allows school boards to remove members. They have to ask their local district attorneys or the state Attorney General for that action.
“This is a method to intimidate people to keep information from the public,” Margiotta said.
The policy now goes to the full board for review.
School board attorney Jonathan Blumberg said that even without changing the policy, the board had the authority to take action against members. But he said having the new wording in place will allow the board to handle complaints in an organized way.
Board members and Blumberg repeatedly said there would be safeguards to prevent the process from being used for political partisanship or witch hunts. They argued that requiring a two-thirds vote would show that a high burden or proof had been met to justify the punishment.
“It’s an attempt to put appropriate checks and balances in place,” Martin said.
Chairman Keith Sutton had asked for a review of the ethics policy after Margiotta revealed to the media details of closed-session board discussions of the superintendent search. The news reports came as the board was trying to complete a contract with Merrill that was approved last week.
“There needs to be some accountability and repercussions when someone breaches our confidentiality and the trust of this board in that manner,” Sutton said last week.
The new policy copies wording from the N.C. School Boards Association’s model code of ethics, which says board members will “respect the confidentiality of information that is privileged under applicable law and refrain from unauthorized disclosure of matters discussed in closed session.”
Margiotta says he didn’t get his information from board members and that it was “common knowledge” in the community that Merrill was the favorite. He said calling for these new enforcement provisions was an overreaction.
“This has been going on since the beginning of time,” he said. “People talk. So many of these things should not be held in closed session.”
Other examples of ethical violations in the current policy include board members:
• Surrendering their independent judgment to individuals or special interest groups.
• Not engaging in respectful dialogue with fellow board members on matters being considered by the board.
• Being placed in a position of conflict of interest and using their positions for personal or partisan gain.
• Taking private action that would compromise the board and administration.
Board member Bill Fletcher said they need to be careful that the new complaint process doesn’t unfairly harm board members.
“I’m hopeful we never have to use this policy,” he said. “The challenge is not creating a media furor over something that is a misunderstanding and impugning someone’s reputation.”