Ethics panel looks at gifts to teachers

The Louisiana Board of Ethics started grappling Friday with questions surrounding what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to gifts and other rewards to teachers and school administrators.

State law generally bans the receipt of anything of economic value for the performance of public jobs, other than salary and benefits derived from that job. There are exceptions for limited food and drink and receipt of promotional items of token value.

St. Tammany Parish School Superintendent W.L. “Trey” Folse III raised 11 “what-if” scenarios as he sought an Ethics Board opinion on what meets the ethics law test.

The board decided to wait until January to take the issues up so members could study the issues raised in the context of the law.

“I don’t want to be the Grinch who stole Christmas,” said Ethics Board Chairman Blake Monrose, of Lafayette.

Monrose and other board members said they needed time to look at the questions posed, noting that many people would rely on whatever advice is provided.

The board also wanted to review a report prepared by ethics agency staff that outlined how the laws of other states treat similar situations in case it wants to propose legislation for consideration when the Louisiana Legislature opens its 2013 session April 8.

In his letter to the Ethics Board, Folse said questions have arisen as a result of required annual training of teachers, principals and other public school employees in state ethics laws.

“Your guidance and responses to the questions ... would ensure that the St. Tammany Parish School System is on the right track in ensuring that its employees are properly following the Code of Governmental Ethics,” Folse wrote.

Folse questions ranged from receipt of gifts from a variety of sources to holiday swapping of gifts among teachers and administrators, solicitation of businesses for special discounts for system employees and free use of condominiums under certain circumstances.

Specific questions included:

  • Can a teacher receive gifts from students, parents, administrators and-or the Parent Teacher Association during Teacher’s Appreciation Week, on special occasions or during the holidays?
  • Can a school or PTA provide breakfast or lunch to employees on special occasions or during the holidays?
  • Can an employee accept the free use of a condominium for a trip from parents, administrators or other employees?
  • Can Teachers of the Year and Principals of the Year receive gifts from students, parents, employees or the PTA for their achievements?

Ethics lawyer Michael Dupre said questions are routinely asked about gifts when ethics trainers go to teachers conferences. “There’s nothing out there formally,” Dupre said.

Ethics administrator Kathleen Allen said the law has been interpreted by the board in prior opinion requests when issues have been raised.

“This is going to be an in-depth discussion once everybody’s had the opportunity to review,” Monrose said. “It’s something we all really need to study in-depth. We do have a lot of questions to answer here.”