Sunday, October 15, 2006


Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis' sentiment, "Sunshine is the best disinfectant," has long been a mantra for those seeking truth by shining a bright light on all the facts. The term "transparency" -- making the ways businesses, governments or other institutions operate clear enough for outsiders to understand -- is another rallying cry for full disclosure.

G.S., a reader from Ohio, recently e-mailed me about a situation that has come up at the middle school where he teaches, a situation that in his opinion cries out for a more transparent approach.

The school has a social committee that plans activities for the staff during and after school hours. Some of the funds for its activities are raised by staff members who bring in baked goods to be sold to students. The committee also collects $10 from each staff member for a flower fund to be drawn upon whenever major events occur in the lives of staff members or their families.

This year the head of the social committee has decided to spend $200 for food at a bar that has agreed to host the staff's annual Christmas party. G.S. is concerned for several reasons.

First, there's the party's location. He believes that most parents would "be offended" if they knew that the money their children paid for baked goods was going to pay for a staff party in a bar, even if the money is earmarked for food and not liquor. Second, he doesn't believe that any of the money collected for flowers should be used for the party. And finally he sees a conflict of interest in the head of the social committee steering the party to a bar owned by her best friend, a former staff member.

If money from the flower fund is indeed to be used to pay for the Christmas party, G.S. has every reason to be upset. The money collected from staff members for flowers should not be used for any purpose other than flowers, unless they themselves specifically agree to the new use. People give their flower money for that specific purpose, and the right thing for the social-committee chair to do is to make sure -- and to give a clear accounting as evidence -- that every penny raised did indeed go to the purchase of flowers. Anything left over should be saved for future flower purchases.

He also is right to be concerned about the potential conflict of interest represented by the committee chairwoman steering the party to her best friend's bar. Even if this represents the best deal the staff could get, the appearance of a conflict is inevitable. Ideally the chairwoman would have allowed others to shop for a location, with her friend's bar naturally among the options. If the results of this survey determined that the bar in question was the best choice, it would remove any suspicion that the chairwoman was using her position to benefit a friend.

G.S. is on shakier ground, however, in questioning whether the event should take place at a bar. Unless there is a school rule forbidding staff functions being held in such establishments -- and of course assuming that no students or other minors will be at the party -- there's no clear problem with having the party there. As for the children and their parents, they're probably more concerned about the baked goods than about where the money will be spent.

The right thing for the social committee to do is to segregate the money collected for the flower fund from its general-use funds, and to ensure that all flower money goes for the purpose intended. The chairwoman should also go out of her way to avoid any perception of a conflict by making sure that, if a party occurs at a friend's bar, it's for the benefit of the social committee and not solely for the benefit of her friend.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Seglin,

Bravo to G.S. for taking the moral high-ground over the social chairwoman's choices. With all these recent distractions, it is easy to overlook the most unethical behavior, which was only mentioned, in passing. The fact that this social committee is funded by the teachers extorting monies from their students, via bake sales, is a more serious ethical breach.

Jim Webber
Yorba Linda, CA
Reader of The Orange County Register

P.S. Our family enjoys your column and we discuss these scenarios, regularly, with our children.

Anonymous said...

I would like to comment on a recent column which referred to teachers baking treats and selling them at school for fundraising (for their own benefit).

First, I think teachers open themselves to liability when they sell products baked from their own kitchen.

Who knows how clean the kitchens are? There are no health department inspections. Why be blamed, rightly or wrongly, if students become ill.

Second, there is the issue of childhood obesity, a major issue in the news lately. Teachers should not be pushing non-nutritive foods that are fattening and unhealthy. What lesson is this teaching students?

How effective are health classes taught by hyprocrites? Why is it o.k. for teachers to sell junk
food for their own personal gain?

You failed to discuss either of these issues in your column.

Elinor Stein

Anonymous said...

This is no different than the Red Cross collecting millions for 9-11 families, then using the money for something else! A deal is a deal: use the $$ as promised or refund it!