Ethics, because we aren’t perfect

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Well, if elected officials were angels, no codes of ethics would be necessary either. But elected officials are merely people, flawed and imperfect and subject to temptation, ignorance and error, which means that they should be controlled by external rules that provide transparency, and most importantly, accountability.

The DeKalb County School Board desperately needs a set of rules governing the official behavior of its members — not because we’re bad, but because we are human beings who have taken on an awesome responsibility.

Imagine a private company with an annual budget of more than $850 million, more than 102,000 customers, and 13,285 employees — without a clear set of rules governing its directors. Give that company the ability to levy taxes and condemn property, and you have the DeKalb school board. That’s too much power without the checks or balances that taxpayers expect and deserve.

There’s currently no rule against me using my position as a member of the school board to get a job in the school system for one of my relatives. There’s nothing that says I can’t serve on some other DeKalb County board, even if serving on that board would create an obvious conflict of interest. There’s no oversight board, official watchdog or ombudsman watching over me (or any of the other board members); no clear set of rules we could turn to if I had an ethical question. And were I to do something that was obviously wrong, there’s no mechanism to punish me, remove me from office, or undo any damage I might have done to the school system. This lack of guidance is not some mere loophole in the law — there’s no law to even put a loophole in!

Today, school board members are guided only by their own instincts. And since we’re all only human, we are subject to both honest mistakes and errors of opportunity. That’s no way to run any government. Yet when presented with an opportunity to take a single, tiny step to protect taxpayers and students from potentially unethical actions by board members, a majority of my colleagues recently voted to table the discussion. I can’t think of a good reason why any elected official would vote against ethical standards — but I can think of a few bad ones.

If the school board is not willing to create a common-sense code of ethics for itself, we may just find the state Legislature will do it for us. State Rep. Kevin Levitas (D-Atlanta) has pre-filed the DeKalb School Board Transparency Act, which would give our board a clear set of principles to follow. Among them would be disclosure requirements, prohibitions on accepting gifts or money, and most importantly, consequences for violating the rules. Levitas has good intentions, and a pretty good bill that’s worthy of public support. It would be a shame if the DeKalb school board were unable to govern ourselves and adopt a strong set of ethics guidelines. But whether from the state or ourselves, we need an ethics code.

Voters and taxpayers understand that we don’t live in a perfect world, and that neither humans nor elected officials are “angels.” They did not elect us to be perfect. They elected us to do the best job we can in making sure that every child in DeKalb County has an education that will allow them to compete in the 21st century. They expect us to be honest with them while we do that. We need to be transparent in our motivations, honest in our dealings, and accountable for our actions. These are the elements necessary to re-build public trust in our school board, our school system and government.

Paul Womack is a member of the DeKalb County School Board.