Ethics Commission Fines Harvard School Superintendent Thomas Jefferson and Former Harvard School Committee Member Paul Wormser For Violating the Conflict of Interest Law
Circumvented established procedures for approving private school tuition reimbursement
As set forth in the Decision, Wormser became dissatisfied with the special education services his child was receiving in the Harvard public schools during the 2004-2005 school year. As School Committee Chair, Wormser had regular work meetings with then Superintendent Mirhan Keoseian. At the end of these meetings, Wormser repeatedly raised concerns about the services his child was receiving and later advocated for sending his child to private school and having the Harvard public schools bear part of the cost. Keoseian refused to consider these requests, consistently telling Wormser there were procedures he needed to follow.
Under state law, a team consisting of teachers, evaluators and parents develop an Individualized Education Program ("IEP") detailing special education services for a student. If parents disagree with their child's IEP, they have the right to file for mediation or a hearing with the state Bureau of Special Education Appeals ("BSEA") or file a court action. Parents who unilaterally withdraw a student from a school district, may seek, with proper notice, reimbursement for private school tuition, but they have to prove their case at a due process hearing before the BSEA.
On June 3, 2005, Wormser's wife canceled an IEP team meeting scheduled for the next day, withdrew their child from the school district, and enrolled the child in Cushing Academy, a private school not approved by the state Department of Education to provide special education services.
On July 1, 2005, Jefferson became Superintendent. At the end of regular work meetings Wormser had with Jefferson, Wormser again brought up issues regarding reimbursement of his child's private school tuition. According to the Decision, "repeatedly bringing up a personal financial matter at the end of meetings about school business was an improper use of Wormser's official position."
In January 2006, an IEP team concluded that placement in the Harvard public schools was appropriate for Wormser's child. Wormser met with Jefferson about his child's placement at Cushing Academy, and Jefferson reviewed records regarding the child. On June 8, 2006, without consulting with the IEP team or setting up another IEP meeting, and without contacting anyone from Cushing Academy, Jefferson, over the objections of the Harvard public schools Special Education Director, approved partial reimbursement of two years of private school tuition. When the school district's attorney drafted the reimbursement agreement, it included a signature block for Jefferson. Jefferson, however, instructed the Special Education Director to sign, saying, "it wouldn't look right" for him to sign the agreement.
The draft agreement was sent to Wormser on June 19, 2006. On June 26, 2006, as a School Committee member, Wormser signed Jefferson's performance evaluation. As a result of the evaluation, Jefferson received a pay raise.
Between July and September, 2006, Wormser made additional reimbursement requests, and Jefferson approved each request. A final agreement, signed by the Special Education Director, provided for up to $60,000 of tuition reimbursement. Wormser received a total of $30,000 for two school years before the Wormsers moved out of the school district. No further payments were made.
Section 23(b)(2) prohibits a public employee from knowingly, or with reason to know, using or attempting to use his official position to secure for himself or others an unwarranted privilege or exemption of substantial value not properly available to similarly situated individuals. According to the Decision, the Commission found that Wormser "repeatedly took advantage of official access that he had as school committee chair to superintendents under his authority to make them focus on his personal requests for tuition reimbursement." The Commission also found that Jefferson used his position as Superintendent to deviate from usual procedure in order to approve an agreement of substantial value to Wormser, his superior.
Section 23(b)(3) of the conflict of interest law prohibits a public employee from knowingly, or with reason to know, acting in a manner that would cause a reasonable person, having knowledge of the relevant circumstances, to conclude that any person can improperly influence or unduly enjoy his favor in the performance of his official duties, or that he is likely to act or fail to act as a result of kinship, rank, position, or undue influence of any party or person. The Commission concluded that "[Jefferson] violated [section] 23(b)(3) by participating in negotiations with Wormser, his superior, without publicly disclosing that he was engaged in a financial negotiation with a school committee member." The Commission also found that "[Wormser] violated [section] 23(b)(3) by failing to disclose that he was negotiating his tuition reimbursement claim with Jefferson while he participated in the school committee's evaluation of Jefferson's performance."
"Public employees may not use their positions to bypass established procedures to secure private benefits for themselves or their superiors," stated Commission Executive Director Karen L. Nober. "A School Committee member who is the parent of a special needs student must follow the same process as any other parent of a special needs student in seeking reimbursement of private school tuition. In addition, any private deals or negotiations between a School Committee member and a Superintendent, a superior and a subordinate, must be disclosed publicly by each employee before he engages in any official action that would raise even the appearance of a conflict of interest."