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Can a Florida school board member vote to renew a family member’s employment?

A specific details make a difference, the state Ethics Commission rules.
The Pinellas County School Board meets in August 2015 at district headquarters in Largo. DIRK SHADD   |   Times
The Pinellas County School Board meets in August 2015 at district headquarters in Largo. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published Aug. 26, 2019

How many times have we seen a scenario similar to this one?

A school board somewhere in Florida prepares to renew contracts for its employees, usually in June or early July. One of the board members speaks up, noting his or her spouse, or brother, or child is a teacher, janitor or administrator somewhere in the system.

Is it okay to vote on that contract, too, they ask the district’s lawyer, who usually says it’s only a conflict of interest if they are acting on something for specific personal gain. Voting on a laundry list of employees that includes a relative doesn’t rise to that level, they say.

But what about if the circumstances are slightly different?

Superintendents and board members across the state are revisiting the issue this summer, after a ruling by the state Ethics Commission on a complaint against Hendry County board member Stephanie Busin, who voted to reappoint her husband Anthony as a school principal.

This summer, instead of being one of 26 administrative reappointments up for consideration, Mr. Busin was the sole name on the board agenda. His inadvertently had been left off the main vote at an earlier meeting.

Mrs. Busin asked for the lawyer’s advice, and she then voted favorably for the annual contract. And someone complained.

The commission cleared Mrs. Busin, saying the public interest would not be served by pursuing the allegations she misused her public office for family personal gain. But a hearing officer did advise that because the “class” of employees being voted upon was so small, it did represent a special private interest and Mrs. Busin might have violated the rules.

“All the statutory elements for a violation of the voting conflicts law are present,” wrote commission advocate Elizabeth A. Miller.

“However,” she continued, “responded used due diligence to inquire of Attorney McKinley whether or not she could vote on matters involving her husband. Her actions were made in good faith and with no intent to evade the law.”

The commission agreed. But the wording of the analysis gave pause to district officials throughout Florida, who noted that the board member was “technically” guilty even though she was not prosecuted.

In a series of emails, leaders of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents said they believed the issue needed discussion and possible action to prevent unknowing errors. They said they planned to consider next steps, if any, when the group meets in September.


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