School Committee members are municipal employees covered by the conflict of interest law (Chapter 268A of the General Laws). All municipal employees, whether elected or appointed, full or part-time, paid or unpaid must abide by the restrictions of the conflict law.

The purpose of the conflict law is to ensure that your private financial interests and relationships do not conflict with your responsibilities on the School Committee. The law is broadly written so that situations which even give the appearance of a conflict may be avoided.

If you have been designated by the board of selectmen, board of aldermen or city council as a "special," two sections of the conflict law, Sections 17 and 20, apply less restrictively to you. (All other sections of the conflict law which affect municipal employees apply to special municipal employees in the same way.) Most School Committee members are eligible for designation as specials; see the Commission's Fact Sheet, "Special Municipal Employees" for information on eligibility and the process of designation.

CONFLICT QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Accepting Gifts (Section 3)

A text book vendor has recently received the school committee's approval for a contract with the school department. To foster goodwill and say thank you, the vendor offers each of the committee members dinner at a fine restaurant in Boston. May you accept?

  • It depends. You may not accept a gift of substantial value ($50 or more), which is given to you because of the municipal position you hold, from someone or some group with whom you have or have had official dealings, even if the motivation for the gift is to express gratitude for a job well done or to foster goodwill.

  • If your dinner is worth $50 or more, you may not accept the meal. If the dinner is valued at less than $50, you may accept the gift provided it is not intended as a bribe. A bribe, no matter what its value, will violate the law.

The conflict law permits local boards and committees to adopt stricter standards than those in the state law. Many local governments have an outright ban on accepting any gifts to avoid any appearance of conflict or favoritism which may be created by accepting gifts.

Prohibited Actions Affecting Financial Interests (Section 19)

You are a school committee member, and also work for a sports equipment store that has bid on a contract to supply athletic equipment to the schools. May you participate in the school committee decision on the contract?

  • No. You may not participate in any matter that affects the financial interest of your employer (whether or not you worked on the matter for your company). You also may not act on a matter that affects your own financial interest or those of your "immediate family" or of a business for which you serve as officer, director, partner or trustee. You also must abstain on matters affecting your competitors if the outcome will affect your company.

Immediate family is defined in the law as you and your spouse, and either of your children, parents, brothers and sisters. For example, if your sister is a part owner of the sports equipment store in question, you should abstain when the issue comes before your board. Your sister, as a part owner of the store, has a financial interest in the matter.

There is an exemption available for appointed school committee members:

  • If appointed, you may act on a matter affecting your own, your family's or your business' financial interest only if you get written permission from your appointing authority prior to taking any action. If you are elected, no such exemption is available.

  • Another exemption allows you to act as a school committee member on any determination of "general policy" which affects a substantial segment of your community's population in the same way. For example, you have a child in the public school system. Students currently get free milk at lunch, but due to budget problems the school committee is considering charging a nominal fee for the milk. This plan would affect your financial interest because of your child, but it would also affect much of your town's population, so you may participate in deciding on the proposal. Not all policy changes fall into the category of "general policy." Seek advice from your local town or city counsel or the Ethics Commission on specific questions.

Appearances of Conflict and Misuse of Official Position (Section 23)

Your cousin, a lawyer, is representing a client before your committee. May you participate in the matter?

  • Yes, provided that you publicly disclose the fact that the lawyer is your cousin prior to your taking any action. If you are an appointed school committee member, your disclosure must be made in writing to your appointing authority (whatever board or person appointed you to the committee). If you are elected, your disclosure must be made in writing and filed with the town or city clerk. These disclosures must be kept available for public inspection. We also suggest that you make a verbal disclosure at a public meeting in which the matter arises. The disclosure will dispel, by law, the impression of favoritism created when you act on matters affecting relatives (who are outside the definition of "immediate family") or friends.

In addition, you must act objectively and not attempt to obtain any special favors for your cousin because of your relationship. Using your position to secure unwarranted privileges for people always violates the law, regardless of whether you have disclosed your private relationship. See, Commission Fact Sheet, "Avoiding Appearances of Conflicts of Interests" for more detailed information.

Restrictions "After Hours" (Section 17)

Outside of your school committee position, you are a professional engineer working for a development company. May you represent the development company before the conservation commission concerning a development located in wetlands?

  • If you are a regular municipal employee, no. You may not act as the agent or attorney for any private party, including your own company, before municipal boards or agencies. Representing a private company before a town board is acting as that company's agent; it does not matter whether you are paid or not.

  • If you are a "special" municipal employee, your outside activities may be permissible. You may represent private parties before other municipal boards (not your own) unless it is a matter in which you officially participated, is pending before your agency, or which is now or within the past year was within your official responsibility as a school committee member. In this example, if the proposed development was coming or had already come before the school committee as a "party in interest" (for example, if the proposed development directly abutted the local high school), you may not represent the development company before the conservation commission, whether or not you are designated as a special.

To emphasize, it is not enough simply to abstain from official action on your own board; if the same matter is before other town boards, you must not act as the representative for a private company before those boards.

Prohibited Financial Interest in Municipal Contracts & Multiple Jobs (Section 20)

A teacher in one of your local schools has written and published a textbook. The school committee has expressed an interest in purchasing the book for the school department. May you purchase the book, and may the teacher receive royalties from the sale of the book?

  • No, unless your municipality's collective bargaining agreement with the teachers provides for additional compensation for extra-curricular activities, including receipt of royalties in connection with the purchase of textbooks by the school committee.

The conflict law generally prohibits municipal employees from having a financial interest in any contract (other than their employment contract) with their municipality. However, the Commission has previously held that the multiple contract restrictions do not apply when an employee's additional services and compensation are an expansion of the employee's primary employment contract. Many teachers' collective bargaining agreements include statements regarding teacher participation in extra-curricular activities; thus, if the municipality's contract with the teachers specifically authorizes participation in extra-curricular activities in return for additional compensation, and preparation of educational materials is included within that authorization, the teacher may accept the royalties from the purchase without violating the conflict law.

You want to serve as an elected planning board member. If elected, may you hold positions both on the planning board and school committee?

  • If you are elected in both positions, yes. If both positions are unpaid (whether they are elected or appointed), yes. If the school committee job is appointed and unpaid, and the elected position is paid, you may hold both positions. However, if the school committee position is appointed and paid, you must be designated as a "special" in the planning board position in order to hold both posts.

Talk to your town counsel or city solicitor about the technical requirements for receiving additional compensation or holding multiple positions, or call the Ethics Commission at (617) 371-9500.

Restrictions After You Leave Government Service (Section 18)

You have resigned as a member of the school committee and now work for a developer who has a project pending before the municipality. May you represent the developer before various municipal boards and agencies?

  • It depends:


    • You may not represent the developer before a municipal agency concerning a matter in which you participated as a school committee member.

    • For one year after you leave public service, you may not appear before municipal boards on a matter which was under your official responsibility if it was before your committee within two years before you left.

    • You may represent the developer before municipal agencies (including your own) with no "cooling off" period, on a matter you never dealt with and which was not before your committee while you were a member of the school committee.

Advisory Opinion

This summary is a brief overview of the conflict law and suggests activities which you, as a school committee member, must avoid. It is not a comprehensive review intended to cover every situation. You should consult your municipal lawyer or call the Ethics Commission's Legal Division at (617) 371-9500 for advice on the conflict law.

If you have a question about your own activities, we urge you to request advice prior to engaging in the activity in question.

If you have questions about others' activities in your area, urge them to use the advisory opinion process. In addition, complaints may be filed with the Commission's Enforcement Division in person, by phone (at the same number listed above) or by letter. The identity of complainants is kept confidential.

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Commission Summaries are prepared and issued by the Public Education Division of the State Ethics Commission. They are intended to provide guidance to public officials and employees concerning practical applications of the conflict law.

ISSUED : October 1988