Sioux Falls School District

What constitutes a conflict of interest is both a moral and legal question and is dependent upon a number of factors. It involves situations wherein “regard for one duty tends to lead to disregard of another.”1 Engaging in outside employment or financial dealings that impair objectivity or independent judgment or create an impression of conduct violative of the public trust is the very definition of “conflict of interest.” When the employer is a governmental entity, it is important to ensure that governmental employees refrain from outside activities that conflict with their duties or may expose them to the temptation of acting in a manner other than in the best interest of the people they serve.2

In light of the broad spectrum of activities that could create an actual or perceived conflict, it is virtually impossible for a conflict of interest policy to specifically identify all of the various circumstances and relationships that could constitute an actual or perceived conflict of interest. Therefore, creation and adoption of a policy that recognizes the negative impact of actual or perceived conflicts and creates a procedure for identification of such conflict situations is particularly important for a public agency.

The District’s Policy GBEAA requires that all District employees refrain from taking part in, or exerting influence by conduct or actions in, activities in which their own interests may conflict with the best interest of the District and the students and public it serves. Policy GBEAA appropriately recognizes that public confidence in the impartiality, independence and integrity of SFSD employees is essential for the proper administration of the District’s affairs. This commitment to serve the public is further borne out by Policies GA and GBH. Policy GA recognizes that the SFSD Board wishes to hire and retain “personnel who will devote themselves to the education and welfare of our students,” while Policy GBH recognizes that SFSD employees “automatically become public relations agents [for the District] in their contacts with the community.” Policy GBH also recognizes that the “school and community should not be considered separate and apart but as working as a unified whole in the process of educating the students of Sioux Falls.”

In light of the above, the potential for an actual or perceived conflict is always present when an individual is engaged in simultaneous employment with the District and another school district or employer that provides the same or similar services or programs that serves youth. As a general rule this situation will trigger concerns as it has the potential to create a conflict of interest as defined by Policy GBEAA.

The potential for a perceived conflict is even greater when it involves teachers. Teaching has been declared a profession in South Dakota.3 A teacher is defined as a person charged with responsibility in the field of education and certified by the Secretary of the Department of Education to provide services in an educational setting.4 The teaching certificate issued by the State must indicate both the subject/area authorization for which the individual is qualified to teach as well as verify completion of an approved education endorsement program.5 Coaching falls within the term “education endorsement program.”6

The District’s standard teaching contract states that the employee agrees to devote his/her utmost skill to the performance of the duties to be assigned by the District and to faithfully comply with, obey and enforce all of the District’s policies, rules and regulations. Duly adopted rules and regulations of a school board within the authority of that board are binding as if they were statutes.8 The District’s standard teaching contract also states that any additional terms that are set out in a separate attachment are “incorporated herein and form a part of this Contract.” Those additional “terms” include any “extra work/extra pay” (more commonly known as extra curricular activities) assignments for District. Inclusion of these extracurricular assignments as part of the contract provides evidence of the District’s commitment to and recognition of the fact that these activities are an integral part of the educational mission of the District. One such assignment is coaching. In fact, South Dakota law has long recognized that “a teacher’s coaching responsibilities are not severable from a teacher’s classroom responsibilities … .”7 A now retired Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court once said:

I once read that the thoughts imparted by a teacher affects eternity because it can never be determined where his or her influence stops. A coach’s influence on a young athlete is never ending. It lives on with the young athlete throughout his lifetime. Lessons learned on the playing field and the counsel of a coach abides in the mind and spirit throughout a young athlete’s lifetime and is called upon to use judgment and display courage in many adversities found in life. If there is a difference between a “coach” and a “teacher”, it must be a nebulous distinction which only lawyers and judges can formulate through legal jargon. A coach’s activities with young students are, inherently, educational in nature.

Justice Rudy Henderson, concurring opinion, Reid v. Huron Board of Education. It is for reasons such as this that a conflict of interest policy is necessary.

Policy GBEAA appropriately recognizes that each situation must be individually examined. That is the reason that the policy contains a procedure for determining whether an employee’s outside activity would be in violation of the conflict of interest policy. Under the established procedure, the employee should initially discuss the situation with his/her immediate supervisor; however, the immediate supervisor does not have the authority to determine whether the outside activity constitutes an actual or perceived conflict. Rather, after each specific situation is examined by the immediate supervisor, it must then be examined by the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction/Human Resources. The immediate supervisor looks at whether the activity will have an effect or potentially affect the performance of the employee’s specific duties, while the Assistant Superintendent ensures that the activity is in compliance with District policy and the District’s overall philosophy and mission.

Actual and perceived conflict of interests, particularly with a public entity, must be identified and avoided at all costs. Situations wherein regard for one duty tends to lead to disregard of another must be avoided so that public confidence in the impartiality, independence and integrity of the District is maintained and to ensure that personnel hired by the District are devoting themselves to the education and welfare of the District’s students as agreed to in the contract so that the school and community are seen as working as a unified whole in the process of educating the students of Sioux Falls.

1 Black’s Law Dictionary (6th Ed. 1991).
2 See e.g., Hang v. City of Winner, 2005 SD 10, 692 N.W.2d 202
3 SDCL 13-43-16.
4 ARSD 24:08:01:01(6).
5 ARSD 24:15:02:05.
6 ARSD 24:16:06:01.
7 Hanson v. Vermillion School District, 2007 SD 9, 727 N.W.2d 459 citing Lemmon Ed. Ass’n v. Lemmon School Dist., 478 N.W.2d 821 (SD 1991) and Reid v. Huron Board of Education, 449 N.W.2d 240 (SD 1989).
8 Sutera v. Sully Buttes Board of Education, 351 N.W.2d 457 (SD 1984).

Document Author: Davenport, Evans, Hurwitz & Smith, L.L.P.