Schools seek to adapt to new times
JANESVILLE—As public school districts look to the private sector for help rounding out district budgets, ethical questions will arise, Kevin Murray told fellow school board members at a meeting Wednesday.
Murray has been at the forefront of raising such questions, but Wednesday he apologized for the words he used at a school board meeting last week.
As he sat across from Superintendent Karen Schulte at a board committee meeting, Murray said he was sorry for how he had described an incident last summer when Schulte appeared in advertisements for Mercy Health System, telling the story of her eye surgery.
Schulte at the time suggested a donation to the district in exchange for appearing in the ads. No donation was ever made, Schulte has said.
Murray told the committee he did not mean to imply that any improper pay-to-play arrangement ever occurred, and he doesn't believe it did.
Murray noted schools are looking to develop relationships with outside entities, “which is a good thing, but we have to be careful about how we do that.”
Murray said one way to be careful is to not allow even the appearance that pay-for-play can happen, which is what a proposed policy is about.
The policy would regulate endorsements or testimonials that a district employee might be asked to make on behalf of a product or service.
The policy would require any testimonial to be accurate, pre-approved by the superintendent and never be connected to any payment.
Employees would be allowed to make testimonials as private citizens, but only if there is no connection to their jobs with the district. A coach endorsement of a sporting goods store, for example, would not be allowed.
The policy is not intended to encourage endorsements, said David Moore, district legal counsel who worked on the policy. Rather, it would define what is acceptable and let the superintendent decided what is proper.
“There ought to be a smell test, and that's what you expect the administration to apply,” Moore said.
The committee sent the proposal to the full board for discussion and possible approval but not before interesting discussion.
Schulte agreed the district is entering new territory. She noted that Bob Smiley, the district's new chief information officer, is widely respected in his field and has appeared in materials published by computer-related companies.
Such appearances could boost the district's profile with parents considering a move to Janesville and generally boost the district's reputation, Schulte said.
Schulte said she preferred the word “testimonial” because “endorsement” can imply that a payment is involved.
Murray asked about recent advertising at high school football games, in which Hellman's mayonnaise was featured on signs, sandwiches were given away, and the public-address system was used to broadcast a Hellman's ad.
Each high school will receive $1,100 for the advertising at two games each.
Schulte said there are numerous instances of businesses supporting schools that include advertising, such as gift cards that Sam's Club has given to schools. Announcement of the cards would be positive exposure for Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, she noted.
Schulte noted the district already has a policy about advertisements, and such ads are allowed. The policy considered Wednesday was strictly about endorsements.
Board member David DiStefano said the district can benefit from enhanced relationships with vendors when endorsements are given, even though there is no payment. He said he allows his name to be used in insurance company materials, and he sits on companies' advisory councils, which gives him advanced notice of new products coming on the market.
A testimonial might lead to the district receiving a better technological solution or product because an official is involved with that company, DiStefano said.
Murray thanked DiStefano for his business perspective and said it had merit.
Committee Chairwoman Kristin Hesselbacher said one reason the board is taking a new look at related policies is a desire to be more transparent about what is allowed.