Three countywide school board members on Wednesday, Jan. 23, began the first ethics probe of another board member that anyone with either school system can remember.
School board member Martavius Jones made a formal complaint in December that fellow member David Pickler violated the board’s code of ethics by not disclosing his personal interest in school board business. He also called for Pickler to resign.
The specific complaint is that Pickler voted for a school board budget last June that included a $12 million contribution for investment into a Tennessee School Boards Association trust for which Pickler’s financial services firm was the financial adviser.
Pickler has denied any conflict and any wrongdoing.
The committee, chaired by Teresa Jones and including board members David Reaves and Oscar Love, has the allegation and documentation by Martavius Jones, who is also in the financial services business, and the response from Pickler’s attorney, who has provided a detailed account of the transaction in question.
The next step is a list of questions from the three board members for Pickler and Martavius Jones to reconcile the points on which they agree and disagree.
The questions will be submitted to Pickler and Jones through the school board’s attorneys and the answers compiled by the attorneys for the ethics committee to consider.
The committee’s next session at which the answers are to be reviewed and discussed is Feb. 13.
School board attorneys Dorsey Hopson and Valerie Speakman advised using them as middlemen in the process because of liability concerns Hopson said necessitates a “delicate balance.”
That also goes for additional written information Martavius Jones offered in support of his allegation at Wednesday’s committee session. That information will also be reviewed by Speakman and Hopson before the committee sees all or part of it.
“A misstep would probably be taken very seriously,” Hopson advised the committee, noting that Pickler is represented by an attorney.
Teresa Jones added that the committee will probably have questions for school system administrators about both versions of what happened.
‘When you open it up, to me … the first thing is the vote. If there clearly wasn’t a vote, then a violation of policy as it relates to any vote taken and whether he should have recused himself is really off the table,” she said. “Then you move onto the next section in terms of … not voting but exercise of discretion. … I think we have to look at both of those.”
The committee will focus on two sections of the school system’s ethics code: one that requires the disclosure of a personal interest in voting matters and another that requires the disclosure of a personal interest in non-voting matters.
The committee will make a recommendation to the full school board at the end of its deliberations.
Teresa Jones, who is an attorney, said the standard the committee is working with is “what a reasonable person thinks” is a conflict of interest.
“And that’s a lot more of a gray area if there was no vote but there was some type of indirect interest in a non-voting matter or direct interest in a non-voting matter,” she added.
Hopson said his preliminary inquiries show the Memphis City Schools board decided in 2009 to set aside money for such an account, and that in June 2012, the MCS superintendent and the school system’s chief financial officer decided to put the money into the Tennessee School Boards Association account.
“In my review of the records, there was no vote by the board to put the money into the TSBA account and there was no requirement,” Hopson said. “The board had a vote early on to set the money aside but not the actual decision where to place it.”
The timing of the separate actions could be critical. The 2009 decision was made by the Memphis City Schools board at a time when there were still separate city and county boards of education and Pickler was a member of the county school board, not the city school board. The 2012 decision was after the creation of the current 23-member board structure in which Pickler became a member because of his position on the old Shelby County Schools board.
Between the two dates is the 2010 decision by the city school board to move toward a consolidation of the two school systems.
The decision on the investment appears to have been ratified by the countywide school board when it approved overall financial statements for the still-separate school systems.