Beloit School Board briefed on conflicts of interest

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BELOIT - School District of Beloit Attorney Mary Hubacher gave a presentation to board members on what can be considered a conflict of interest at Tuesday evening's special board meeting. Board members also voted to deny a claim regarding a sexual assault on a school bus.

In an interview following a closed session discussion, Board President Pam Charles said the board came out into open session to vote to deny the claim. On Jan. 31, 2014, a notice of injury was filed on behalf of a minor who was physically and sexually assaulted by other students while on the school bus on Nov. 18, 2013.

The claim said the bus driver, employed by Durham School Services, failed to exercise reasonable caution creating a unreasonable risk of harm to the minor. Those filing are asking for $50,000 for the victim's pain and suffering as well as counseling bills. The school district, Durham School Services and the City of Beloit are named in the claim.

In an earlier presentation in open session, Hubacher told the board the Wisconsin Ethics Code prohibits a board member, elected official or local public official from using his or her office to obtain financial gain or anything of substantial value for the private value of the official, an immediate family member or an organization the individual is associated with. Wisconsin state statutes define immediate family members as individuals related by marriage, lineal descent or adoption.

Wisconsin Criminal Code prohibits public officials from participation in an official capacity in any contracts in which they have a private interest. Not only are officials prohibited from negotiating a contract on behalf of their employers, but are also prohibited from discussing, negotiating or taking action on the contract associated with their employer if there is a substantial benefit to their employer. If a contract is entered into in violation of this section, the contract may be voidable by the board.

Hubacher noted the most common ethics violation which comes up is when a board member's spouse is employed by a school district. In order to avoid a conflict of interest or appearance of it, a board member must not participate in discussion or votes regarding salary or benefits of the spouse, including votes to approve the spouse's salary, changes in benefits and votes on the budget if the budget could substantially affect the spouse's salary or benefits. The official could, however, participate in the budget pieces not related to compensation of the spouse.

If the board member receives health insurance provided by the spouse, the elected official should not participate in the discussion, negotiation or take action on any benefit where the official is a beneficiary of the plan or program.

Charles asked Hubacher what the board should do if there is a disagreement about a conflict of interest amongst board members.

Hubacher suggested a concerned board member should ask the district attorney or state attorney general for an opinion letter and get the issue resolved prior to it coming up at a meeting.

"In a city the size of ours, board member conflicts of interest are not at all uncommon, but it's important to be aware and protect ourselves and the district. With so many new board members, a general overview of state statutes and ethics laws was very helpful," Charles said in a statement to the Daily News following the meeting.

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