State school board member Kira Orange Jones will continue to serve after the Louisiana Board of Ethics ruled this morning that there’s no conflict of interest with her working as executive director of a nonprofit that contracts with the board.
Jones runs the Greater New Orleans office of Teach For America, which frequently enters into contracts with the state Education Department, and which is overseen by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Jones was elected to that board late last year.
Board of Ethics attorney Tracy Barker concluded in a draft advisory opinion that because Jones directs Teach for America and sits on the state education board, she would be essentially approving contracts in which her organization has a vested interest, which breaches state ethics laws. She also concluded that an exception the board ruled on in that case did not apply.
That exception states that there is no conflict of interest in a case where a person can prove that their salary is not directly affected by the contract, that the person owns less than a controlling interest in the company, and the person is not a director, officer, trustee, or partner in the company.
Because Jones is a director in Teach for America, Barker argued, that exception wouldn’t apply.
But James Babst, Jones’ attorney, pointed out that there are several people ahead of Jones in the chain of command.
“This is how TFA works. It is a New York based nonprofit…Jones is the head of (the Greater New Orleans) office. She is not an officer, or a director of the corporation, she is more along the lines of a branch manager,” Babst said.
Jones herself stressed the vast scope of Teach For America, and said that her decisions with the organization are not autonomous.
“I have a direct manager that I meet with every week,” she said.
Addressing the financial issue, Babst said that Jones’ salary “is not in any way dependent on the contracts that TFA gets.”
Barker agreed that Jones’ salary would not be affected. But she again emphasized that Jones was ”the effective head over that particular office, the office that will be doing the work for this particular contract.”
Despite Barker’s arguments, board members in the end sided with Babst, approving a motion to draft and adopt an advisory opinion saying Jones fits the exception, based on the facts she presented to the board.
Perhaps the most vocal Ethics Board member was vice chairman Scott Schneider, who saw Teach For America’s vast scope as proof that Jones would be considered a director, but only on the lowest level.
“The facts that to me scream loudest is that this is a large national corporation,” he said.
He said earlier that in assessing these issues, the board looks at the title of a person within a company, but most importantly, they look at their function. “If all these things are stemming from her title, then….this seems silly.”
After the board’s ruling, Jones received congratulations from several state school board members and staff who had accompanied her to the hearing, most notably BESE President Penny Dastugue, who came to testify on Jones’ behalf.