The contract between the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) and Stephen Murley, its Superintendent, has been in the news lately. Specifically, the contract (see here at sections 13c and 15 has come into question because it allows superintendent Murley to have paid time off so that he can serve as a privately-retained paid consultant. The contract allows for this paid time off for activities that will contribute to the betterment of the district and which must be mutually agreed upon by the superintendent and the board president and more specifically, if the superintendent is paid a salary, fee or honorarium, must be approved in advance by the school board president.
This opportunity for paid time off was used in part by Mr. Murley to provide consulting services to The Supes Academy, LLC, owned by Gary Solomon, its CEO, and Thomas Vranas, its President, even though under Mr. Murley, ICCSD also contracted with ProAct Search, LLC, which was also under the control of Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, to hire an equity director for ICCSD (see here). And prior to Mr. Murley’s involvement with The Supes, ICCSD had also contracted with Synesi, also owned and operated by Solomon and Vranas. The relationship between Mr. Solomon and Mr. Vranas, their company–The Supes, and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system has recently resulted in a criminal guilty plea by the former head of CPS, Barbara Bryd Bennett, and not guilty pleas by Mr. Solomon and Mr. Vranas, whose federal criminal case is still pending.
Leaving aside the obvious possible “kickback” or other conflict of interest inherent in this arrangement, what should the role of the school board president be in this situation? Should the president be solely authorized to decide for the district what leave should be approved and which outside consulting benefits the district or should these matters be decided by the board as a whole? Prudence suggests caution is in order.
Since Mr. Murley’s paid time off for outside work is supposed to be for the benefit of ICCSD, as well as for the benefit of Mr. Murley, one would think that the entire board should decide what outside consulting benefit the district. Specifically, whether or not a benefit occurs requires a policy judgment, and what the president considers to be beneficial to the district may be at odds with the board’s view.
There is also the basic concern that this sort of delegation of authority may not even be legally permitted. The Iowa Code states: The affairs of each school corporation shall be conducted by a board of directors. . . . Iowa Code 274.7. Arguably, allowing just the president to conduct the affairs of the district regarding approving outside consulting (or other substantive matters) violates this section.
Also, school boards in Iowa operate under a “weak president” model, whereby the president has no more say in substantive matters than do other members. In addressing this issue, the Iowa Association of School Board in its 2015 Guide for School Board Candidates states the following:
The board of directors of a school district operates as a corporate body. Individual school board members have no authority to act independently, and cannot commit or bind the board by their individual actions. Powers and duties of the board must be exercised by the board as a whole.
Finally, the ICCSD Superintendent in the past has acknowledged what is known as Dillon’s Rule (see here on pages 448-450), which provides:
It is a general and undisputed proposition of law that a [school] corporation possesses, and can exercise the following powers and no other: First, those granted in express words; second, those necessarily or fairly implied in, or incident to, the powers expressly granted; third, those essential to the declared objects and purposes of the corporation not simply convenient, but indispensable. Any fair, reasonable doubt concerning the existence of power is resolved by the courts against the corporation, and the power is denied.
Iowa schools are governed by Dillon’s Rule and without the required clear authority, Dillon’s Rule suggests that the board president is not authorized to, on his own, act to approve the superintendent’s outside consulting or indeed, other substantive matters.
Given that there is no clear authorization for a school board president to alone exercise the function of determining what leave to approve and which outside consulting benefits ICCSD, the school board would be wise to, as a body, decide what leave is appropriate and to direct the president to only authorize what the board as a body determines in advance should be authorized.
The bottom line is that all school business, especially if it involves the very real possibility of a conflict of interest, is far better conducted in a public forum than by just one member in a closed process.