'Conflict': A simple statement of the possible

It seems nothing raises the hackles of professionals or public officials more than being told they have a conflict of interest. Too often those caught in the conflict think they’re being accused of unethical behavior. Typically, however, nothing could be further from the truth.

Conflicts occur when professional or public interests are at odds with personal interests. A conflict of interest exists even if no unethical or improper act results from it. But it’s a sad fact that when real or even potential conflicts are raised, those on the receiving end often complain that their integrity is being called into question.

Such is the case at Housatonic Valley Regional High School, where a group of teachers has asked Region One School Board Chairman Judge Manning to retract statements he made about a possible conflict in the school’s policy of having department heads formally evaluate teachers. Manning suggested that, since both department heads and classroom teachers belong to the same labor union, the integrity of the school’s evaluation program could be questioned.

Unfortunately, the seven teachers took Manning’s observation as an attack on their impartiality and professionalism, which they defended in a page-and-a-half letter asking Manning to withdraw his comments at the next available board meeting. Manning has rightly refused to do so.

The simple fact is that to virtually anyone outside the field of education, having members of the same labor union engage in formal evaluation of each other’s skills would be regarded as a conflict. Common sense tells us that the solidarity implicit in the relationship between union members could potentially taint the evaluation process. Cynics would have reason to believe that formal review procedures were being compromised in order to protect dues-paying jobs.

In addition, the New England Association of Schools & Colleges, a regional accrediting organization that recently put Housatonic on warning for the curriculum and instruction components of its programs, cautioned that at Housatonic "there is much evidence to suggest that there is an inherent conflict of interest between the improvement of instructional practices and the perception that serving as an evaluator is a perk."

However, to be fair, Manning himself has never fully addressed his own conflict arising out of his formal board role in evaluating Region One Superintendent Patricia Chamberlain. The superintendent participates in the evaluation of Manning’s wife, Karen, who is principal of Sharon Center School. Manning should recuse himself from any involvement. So far he has declined to do so.

This is not a slur against either Manning or the department heads at Housy, all of whom are consummate professionals who enjoy fine reputations. Indeed, we know that, but others may not.

The department heads have pointed out that the current evaluation procedure at Housatonic was approved by the Board of Education at the urging of the previous principal and that so far the feedback about it from the superintendent’s office has been positive. In addition, they have reminded us that the practice is common in Connecticut.

Fair enough. But that doesn’t mean that administrators and board members shouldn’t continue to take a hard look at the school’s programs and governing bodies in an effort to improve them. Indeed, an unwillingness to do so would be an abdication of responsibility.

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