Three recent cases of public school nepotism have surfaced in New Jersey, Missouri and Canada resulting in confrontations, investigations and downright explosions.
Originating in the 17th century from the French nepotisme, Italian nepotismo, from nepote (nephew), and the Latin word nepotem, nepos, meaning grandson or nephew, the word nepotism formed its genesis in the special granting of privileges to the Pope's nephew, euphemism for Pope's natural son.
Four centuries later it is stirring debate in public education just as public schools need desperately to establish public trust. Corporations have stringent policy in free enterprise settings. New York laws pack powerful punch. Anti-nepotism rules in the United States date back to the turn of the century. But public education, funded on the public dime, struggles to establish meaningful district policy on nepotism.
An analysis of recent federal and state court decisions revealed that most judges do not interpret anti-nepotism rules to be either discriminatory or a direct violation of a fundamental constitutional right. Federal constitutional right to marry cases cover a variety of situations, including rules against one spouse supervising the other, and policies against married couples working in the same governmental department.
In lawsuits challenging the validity of anti-nepotism rules, the courts have generally deferred to managerial concerns. In the widely cited case of Keckeisen v. Independent School District the school district defended its policy against relationships between married couples as necessary to avoid conflicts of interest. Such problem areas included performance evaluations and budget allocations among classrooms.
The school board emphasized that the plaintiff, Keckeisen, was a competent and fair-minded administrator, but they expressed concern about the apparently prejudicial arrangement of his marriage to a teacher in the same school system. The Court of Appeals upheld the school board's dismissal of Keckeisen from his position as high school principal.
A New Jersey Hamilton Township Board of Education member is working to convince her colleagues to institute a new nepotism policy in the district. Board member Peggy Capone wants the school district to prohibit the hiring of relatives of a current teacher or administrator.
A Missouri school board sparked fervor over the hiring of a superintendent's son. Following a lengthy discussion in executive session, the Liberty Board of Education approved a teaching contract for Ryan Brewer with a 5-2 vote during a May 21 meeting.
Ryan Brewer, the son of Liberty Superintendent Mike Brewer, will teach chemistry at Liberty High School. Board President Scott Connor and board member Carlin Walker voted against the hiring.
"I was concerned about the perception of nepotism," commented Connor.
The Greater Victoria school district in Canada launched an internal review earlier this year after officials learned that the director of international student programs had his son and his daughter's boyfriend working under him.
As public schools face dramatic opposition nationwide education officials must tackle the hard work of ensuring public trust, increasing student achievement and avoiding any pretense of conflicting interests. And if they won't well there is always Election Day.
Jeff Meadors represents District 1 on the Newton County Board of Education.