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It’s okay for Florida superintendents to propose hiring their relatives

The state Ethics Commission issues an opinion after warning school board members against voting to employ family members.
Superintendents Diana Greene of Duval County, Kurt Browning of Pasco County, Jacqueline Byrd of Polk County, Mike Grego of Pinellas County and Jeff Eakins of Hillsborough County hold a joint press conference in 2018.

In many, if not most, Florida counties, the local school district is the largest employer.

That gives the superintendent of schools plenty of power when it comes to hiring and firing.

But what happens if one of the superintendent’s relatives needs a job? Is it a conflict of interest to put a spouse, child or cousin into a teaching post, or a bus driver’s seat, or a nurse’s clinic?

The question became ripe for clarification this summer as the state Commission on Ethics held that a Hendry County School Board member inappropriately voted to renew her husband’s contract as a school principal. Though the commission did not pursue the issue formally, it did observe that the board member technically appeared to violate state law.

Related: <b>RELATED</b>Can a Florida school board member vote to renew a family member’s employment?

Noting that district superintendents are responsible for making all district employment recommendations, a representative of the state superintendents association asked the commission to look at the issue from a different angle.

Does a superintendent have a conflict of interest in appointing a relative to work in the district, including as a direct report, asked Joy Frank of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

The short answer was “no” — even with recently amended Florida law stating, “Neither the district school superintendent nor a district school board member may appoint or employ a relative ... to work under the direct supervision of that district school board member or district school superintendent.”

Lawmakers’ word choice proved critical.

The commission reasoned that superintendents, unlike school boards, only propose the employment or appointment of personnel. The boards officially hire all workers, and by law may turn down any recommendation for good cause.

“We find it reasonable that the Legislature knew of the limited role that district school superintendents play in the hiring and appointment process, a role clearly laid out in Section 1012.22. The fact that the Legislature still chose not to include language extending the prohibition in Section 1012.23(2) to situations where a district school superintendent recommends the hiring of a relative shows, to us, that it did not intend for the statute to apply in such a circumstance," the commission wrote. “To interpret the statute otherwise would broaden its scope beyond the plain meaning of its language.”

The upshot? If a superintendent hires a relative, that’s a no-go. But proposing one to work in the district is fine.

Read the commission’s full opinion for more details.