Willmar School Board discusses potential conflict of interest
WILLMAR — The potential for a conflict of interest for a newly elected board member was under discussion at the first Willmar School Board meeting of the year.
After electing officers and taking care of other annual business Monday, the board addressed questions raised by people in the community about board member Tammy Barnes, who works as a field representative for the Education Minnesota union. The union represents the bargaining unit for Willmar's teachers.
Board members Barnes and Scott Thaden joined the board Monday. They were elected in November along with incumbents Mike Reynolds and Justin Bos.
After hearing concerns about potential conflicts of interest, he asked the law firm that represents the district to look into it, said Superintendent Jeff Holm. The firm also asked for an attorney general's opinion, but that request was denied.
The firm's lawyers concluded that there is no conflict of interest for Barnes, who does not work with the Willmar teachers' bargaining unit. The union has taken steps to create a "firewall" between Barnes and any Education Minnesota discussion of the Willmar bargaining unit. A lengthy memo spelled out ways Barnes and others in the local Education Minnesota office would avoid discussion of issues related to Willmar's teachers.
The lawyers found that Barnes does not stand to benefit financially from the relationship between the district and Education Minnesota, usually an essential ingredient in determining a conflict of interest.
"There is no clear, direct line that Ms. Barnes, due to her employment, would be paid more because of a vote or receive some kind of financial benefit for that," Holm said.
Barnes invited board members to bring up any concerns they might have so she could address them. She agreed it may not always be an "easy road" but felt it could be handled.
"I'm on record as being open and available," she said.
Board member Linda Mathiasen said she did have some concerns. She called the situation the "perceived potential" of a conflict with no accusation attached.
She asked if the school district should develop a list of actions like Education Minnesota did to ensure that Barnes and the teacher union remain separate.
Board member Laura Warne suggested it might be best to forward those concerns to the policy committee, to develop a policy for all board members. "I think it's important that all board members be aware of conflicts of interest and to err on the conservative side," she said.
The work Education Minnesota put into its plan is appreciated, said board member Mike Reynolds. "At the end of the day, it comes down to the seven of us policing ourselves," he said. "There's always things that will come up. As a group we need to police ourselves in good conscience and go about our business."
After the meeting, Barnes said the work procedures have been going well and were implemented even before the election. She has met with Holm and discussed the situation with the district's attorney, she said. "There's no financial gain for me."
Board Chairman Jared Anez said it was important for the board to have the discussion. "We'll be fine, as long as all of us work together."
Board officers were elected Monday as follows: Anez was elected chairman; Reynolds, vice chairman; Warne, treasurer; and Justin Bos, clerk.