Wednesday, June 4, 2014

New trustee enrolls son in charter school

School board discusses potential for conflict of interest


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

Richard Roberts

    Less than a week after being chosen to fill a vacancy on the Blaine County School District board of trustees, Hailey resident Richard Roberts is facing questions about a potential conflict of interest.
    At a special board meeting late Monday afternoon, it was disclosed that Roberts has enrolled his 8-year-old son, a second-grader this year at the Hailey Elementary School, in Syringa Mountain School for the coming school year. Syringa is a state-funded charter school set to open this fall. It is independent of the School District and not governed or directly affiliated with it.
    The board did not rescind its decision to appoint Roberts to the Zone 4 trustee post, but discussed whether or not the situation presents a potential conflict of interest should an issue arise involving Syringa Mountain School.
    School board Chairman Shawn Bennion said he learned about the enrollment situation after Roberts had already been interviewed and selected on May 27 to fill the Zone 4 trustee vacancy. He said the situation raised questions as to why Roberts had not disclosed his son’s enrollment earlier and whether or not Roberts would have to recuse himself from any discussion or vote involving the new charter school.
    Such an issue is expected to come before the board at its next regular board meeting on June 10, the same meeting in which Roberts is set to be sworn in as a new trustee. At issue for the meeting is a request from Syringa that its students be allowed to use district buses for transportation to and from school.
    “My concern is we as a board make our best decisions when all five of us can participate and discuss jointly and bring our different perspectives, our different points of view, and openly discuss together,” Bennion said. He added that if Roberts were to recuse himself from an issue involving Syringa, then the board would not have the benefit of his opinion.
    Bennion said he still considers that Roberts was the right choice for the position, since he is an attorney and can provide a legal perspective and because he is new to the community and can provide an unbiased perspective. Nonetheless, Bennion said the issue of Roberts’ son’s enrollment needed to be discussed by the board and brought to the attention of the public.
    Roberts, who attended the meeting, told the board that he hadn’t disclosed his son’s enrollment at Syringa because he had not been aware previously that Syringa was not part of the School District.
    “There was absolutely no intent to deceive by not mentioning Syringa,” Roberts said.
    Board Vice Chair Kathy Baker said Roberts’ misunderstanding of the relationship between the district and Syringa is not uncommon. However, she said, even if there is not a legal conflict of interest because of the situation that the board needs to consider “public perception.”
    Trustees Kathryn Graves and Elizabeth Schwerdtle said they were not concerned about the enrollment situation.
    “I would enjoy having the perspective of someone who made a different decision for their child,” Schwerdtle said.
    Roberts said in an interview after the meeting that enrolling his son at Syringa was mainly his wife’s decision because she was interested in the Waldorf teaching method that the school will use, primarily the emphasis on teaching children about farm animals.
    “Overall, it is more of an experiment,” he said.
    Roberts said he was “blindsided” when he learned that Syringa was not part of the district.
    “Now I know,” he said. “It was really frustrating. I did not want to be a distraction.
    “My point is I’m here to help. I want to contribute my energy, my knowledge and my experience.”
    Roberts said he is not automatically going to recuse himself from discussing or voting on a Syringa-related issue but will consider the circumstances if and when a situation arises.
Terry Smith: tsmith@mtexpress.com




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