Richland School District says it will stick with morality clause in superintendent contracts

Tri-City HeraldMay 18, 2013 

— The contract for the new Richland School District superintendent will outline his pay, health benefits and how his job performance will be evaluated.

It also will include a clause requiring him not only to do his job legally and ethically, but also morally.

The so-called "morality clause" is reportedly similar to the one cited by the board in January when it fired Superintendent Jim Busey.

Two other Mid-Columbia school districts -- Pasco and Finley -- include similar wording in their superintendent contracts. But many other districts don't.

Some rely instead on the state's code of professional conduct and their own district code.

Busey claims he did nothing wrong when he had a consensual relationship with a school district employee and is suing the district for $1 million for discrimination.

Despite the controversy, Richland School Board Chairman Rick Jansons said the board intends to hold its new superintendent, Rick Schulte, to the same moral standards.

"It was (our attorney's) advice, and I agree with his advice, that it needs to be in there," Jansons said.

But some education officials question how to define moral conduct and how to enforce it.

They say morality can be a subjective term in a legal document, and that there already are established codes of conduct to follow as part of their jobs.

Codes of conduct

Phil Gore, director of leadership development for the state School Directors Association, said superintendent contracts typically include sections governing their conduct.

A model contract offered by the association includes references to the importance of ethics. Those concerns also are why the state code is in place.

"Boards have a clear responsibility to protect a district, including the reputation of it," Gore said.

But, he said, specific sections on doing a job in a moral manner are not common.

Pasco School Board Vice President Bill Leggett questions the practice.

"I don't know if it would be necessary to be in there," said Leggett, who has served on the Pasco board since the late 1990s.

He suspects it was included in Pasco's superintendent contract because it was standard language at the time and, he said, it might be time for the district to review if that's necessary.

"It is ambiguous," he said.

Pasco Superintendent Saundra Hill and Finley Superintendent Lance Hahn have morality clauses in their contracts that almost are identical to the one in Busey's contract.

Hill's also contains references to the state's Code of Professional Conduct, which all certificated educators are required to follow.

Any certificated educator, including teachers and principals, must comply with the state's code or face disciplinary actions, which could include losing their ability to teach in the state.

Washington law doesn't require school district superintendents to be certificated, but those who are also must comply with the code.

The code covers a variety of behaviors and actions that could be grounds for discipline. They range from being under the influence of drugs or alcohol on the job to hiring an unqualified person for a job.

It also requires educators to have "good moral character and personal fitness."

That includes having no convictions for felony crimes against children, such as neglect or sexual exploitation.

Some motor vehicle violations also can be considered a violation, as well as "any behavioral problem which endangers the educational welfare or personal safety of students, teachers or other colleagues within the educational setting."

Code vs. clause

Many school districts rely on the state code and refer to it in their superintendent contracts.

Schulte said his contract with the Oak Harbor School District on Whidbey Island requires he comply with the state's ethical standards, but makes no mention of morality.

He did not speak about the possibility of signing a morality clause if he came to Richland, but that he would serve at the board's pleasure and would leave his position if board members were not happy with his performance and asked him to.

Except for the Finley and Pasco districts, every other Mid-Columbia superintendents' contract mentions the only the state's code or a district code of ethics.

"Frankly, I'd be offended if anyone asked me to sign (a morality clause)," said Prosser Superintendent Ray Tolcacher, who has been in his Lower Yakima Valley district for more than 20 years.

Rom Castilleja, superintendent for the Kiona-Benton City School District, said he and his board reviewed his contract following Busey's firing in Richland. Castilleja's contract does not contain a morality clause, but he said board members wondered how such a clause could be enforced, particularly in separating a superintendent's professional and personal lives.

"I think that's the crux of the question," Castilleja said. "Where's that line?"

Community expectations

Richland School Board members said they fired Busey for having an affair with a district employee and pursuing a romantic relationship with a district consultant, using district-provided equipment to conduct the affair, and disrupting the school where one employee worked, among other allegations.

Board members said Busey's actions violated this clause of his contract: "Superintendent shall fulfill all aspects of this contract in a legal, ethical and moral manner, any exception thereto being by mutual written consent of the Board and Superintendent.

"Failure to fulfill the obligations agreed to in this contract will be good and just cause for discharge as noted above, and will be reported by the board to the appropriate state educational authorities."

The contract for the new superintendent is not final, but Jansons said he reviewed the clause in the draft document with the school district's law firm, Stevens Clay Manix of Spokane, before it was sent to Schulte last week.

"I think that clause matches the character and expectations of our community," Jansons said.

Taking precautions

Busey's lawsuit could be damaging to the Richland School District.

A court could order the district to pay him for any time left on his contract, or about $400,000, if the district is found to have wrongly fired him.

Busey's lawsuit specifically seeks $1 million in damages, though documents have indicated that is a preliminary figure. A ruling Friday moved the case one step closer to trial.

The case has tied up the district's in-house counsel, Galt Pettett, for months. He's compiling documents requested by Busey and his attorney under the state's Open Public Records law.

Regardless of the outcome, the Richland board is taking precautions against a similar situation in the future.

Schulte's draft contract includes language that limits the amount of money he could receive from the district if he was removed before the contract expires.

Jansons declined to provide details about that section until it is signed.

He said he doesn't expect any difficulties in getting the contract details wrapped up and believes Schulte will sign the deal no later than Wednesday.

Schulte is scheduled to start work July 1.

For more information Washington’s Professional Code of Conduct: www.k12.wa.us/ProfPractices/CodeConduct.aspx

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