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Nepotism loosely regulated by state, school districts

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

School board members come under fire for many reasons, especially when they decide to increase spending.

But nothing triggers complaints faster than charges of nepotism -- hiring someone on the basis of a personal relationship rather than merit.

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Every district will tell you their officials try hard to hire only the best candidates. Still, nepotism exists in schools throughout the region. It's tough to find a district where at least one teacher isn't related to a board member, administrator or another employee.

For example:

Montour officials came under fire recently when the board hired five teachers who were sons and daughters of past and present school board members, administrators and district employees. They included Lauren Snell, whose mother, Joyce, is a school board member; and Julianna Galiyas, whose father, Mitch, is athletic director.

McKeesport Area School District in August hired school board President Chuck Kiss' son Chuck Jr. as administrative assistant of student affairs.

Greensburg Salem School District in July hired Erin Thomas, a cousin of school board member Steve Thomas, as a high school music teacher and band director.

West Allegheny School Board members two years ago hired member Bill Gamble's daughter Lisa as a third-grade teacher in the district.

Shaler School Board members in 1998 hired board member Dean Ingold's daughter, Amy, as a teacher.

The hires were perfectly legal.

The Public School Code of 1949 allows a school board to employ the relative of a board member, as long as the member in question abstains from the vote and a majority of the remaining members agree to it.

Some argue that hiring relatives might even be inevitable.

"Population trends show that people who are born here tend to stay here," said Wythe Keever, assistant director of communications for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

And that, he said, "leads to situations where boards are likely to hire people who grew up in that community. What's more, people in the same profession tend to socialize together and have relatives in the same line of work."

Keever was quick to add, however, that the PSEA favors hiring the most qualified individuals for positions.

Fearing favoritism

Others believe such hirings may not result in the best candidates being hired -- especially in Western Pennsylvania, where the low turnover means that some districts receive hundreds of applications for every teaching job, leaving a lot of disappointed candidates.

Bobbie Bauer, a former Elizabeth Forward School Board member, got so fed up with what she considered clear-cut cases of nepotism in her district that she formed Advocates for Excellence in Education. Whenever there is a board election, the group mails a newsletter to more than 4,000 residents pointing out any questionable hirings.

"Then we leave it up to the community," Bauer said. "If they feel that's the direction the district should go, vote them back in office."

Some states, but not Pennsylvania, prohibit nepotism or limit certain forms of it.

In Virginia, a school board can't hire a relative of a board member or of the superintendent.

And in Texas, the law prohibits "trading" -- a version of "you hire my relative and I'll hire yours." In other words, two school boards can't agree to hire the relatives of each other's board members as a way of getting around the nepotism rules.

Though no one keeps exact statistics, Curtis Rose of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association estimates that fewer than half of Pennsylvania school districts have formal policies on nepotism.

Of those, only a handful ban nepotism, and even many of those have exceptions.

Peters Township School District's 1986 policy, for instance, says that no one can be employed who is related by blood or marriage to a person in an elective, administrative or supervisory capacity in the district, but it doesn't prohibit hiring relatives or spouses of other district employees.

Much more common, said Rose, are policies that simply raise an "awareness" of favoritism, such as those recently adopted in Shaler and North Allegheny school districts.

Shaler's policy, for example, allows relatives to be hired if six board members vote yes, and the related member abstains. "There was a balance to be had," said board member Catherine Davidson, who lobbied for more than five years for the policy. "We want the best qualified people, of course, but you don't want to have to rule out relatives because they often have the credentials."

Resigning, abstaining

Occasionally, a board member will quit to project an appearance of fairness. That was the case in Avonworth School District in August 2001, when board member Tim Frew resigned his post moments before the board voted to hire his wife, Maureen, as an elementary teacher.

But more often, the board member simply will abstain from the vote, which meets the requirements of both the state school code and the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act, which prohibits school board members from engaging in behavior that constitutes a conflict of interest.

Other times, directors do away with the policy altogether.

Ringgold School District in 1998 abolished its anti-nepotism policy so the board could renew the contract of high school baseball coach Scott Henson, the son of a board member.

In a similar move, the Bethel Park school board in January 2002 used an override clause in its nepotism policy so board members could hire a district employee's relative.

Critics of anti-nepotism policies say they can eliminate good candidates from the job pool, particularly in smaller, rural districts, where administrators don't always have the luxury of hundreds of applications on file and the school district is the community's largest employer.

In August, Center Area School District in Beaver County repealed a 9-year-old nepotism policy for just that reason. "It got to the point where it was too restrictive," said Superintendent Ed Elder. He said the district lost at least a half-dozen excellent candidates for teaching jobs because they were related to someone on the board or in the administration.

Brentwood and South Allegheny school districts also have loosened long-standing policies prohibiting nepotism.

"The thought is, you want to keep your younger people interested in moving back to the community once they graduate from college," said Sharon Miller, South Allegheny's board secretary and business manager. "You have to be able to draw people back into a smaller community."

Gretchen McKay can be reached at gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-761-4670.

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