St. Joseph, Missouri Board of Education member cries foul over ‘coded language’ in new member ethics policy meant to muzzle dissent

A board member of a Missouri school district is denouncing a new ethics policy that he says contains “coded language” meant to muzzle his First Amendment rights.

St. Joseph School District…

A board member of a Missouri school district is denouncing a new ethics policy that he says contains “coded language” meant to muzzle his First Amendment rights.

St. Joseph School District Board Vice President Kenneth Reeder told The Lion the new policy, drafted by the Missouri School Boards’ Association (MSBA), risks violating the Constitution with a chilling effect on dissent. It passed in a 4-3 vote Tuesday night.

“They’re trying to tell us how to talk,” Reeder told the local paper, News Press Now. “They’re trying to tell us how to perform. Just because I’m on the school board, doesn’t mean that I lose my First Amendment right to speak. That’s what I was elected for.”

Reeder told The Lion the question of ethics is no laughing matter in St. Joseph, where the FBI spent years investigating allegations of financial fraud in the district, leading to prison sentences.

“Corruption is a problem in a lot of school districts, but when I get together with board members from other school districts, and talk about St. Joseph’s former problems, everybody stops talking,” he said. 

Reeder was elected to the vice president post in April in a 6-1 vote, according to local KQTV 2 News.  

Reeder was particularly worried about the vague wording in the new ethics policy in regard to Missouri Schools Improvement Program, and how it relinquishes local control of the board to the state and downplays the importance of elections.  

“We don’t have to take outside advice,” he said, according to News Press Now, referring to the MSBA, which wrote the policy. “We do not have to conduct ourselves as a ‘go along to get along’ board. We were elected. We make the decisions.”

Reeder told The Lion he also thought the line in the policy that directed the board members to “duties of care, loyalty and trust are really vague and ambiguous.”  

“What does that mean legally?” he asked. “It’s not a legal term. It’s not constitutional.”  

In fact, one of the key duties outlined in the ethics policy is that of the Duty of Loyalty: “Board members will place the interests of the district and its students before personal interests.” 

Reeder told The Lion he thought it was an attempt to muzzle critics of the school district’s administration.  

While board members were told to “consider the ideas and opinions of administrators, advisors and other board members,” in addition to community residents, nowhere in the document is the duty to voters mentioned. 

In fact, the dispute over the new ethics policy seems to have been driven in part by a recent vote in which the board rejected a contract for software that measures student performance. The contract was rejected, said some board members, because the company is owned by a family member of Biden Attorney General Merrick Garland.  

Co-founder of the company in question, Xan Tanner, is married to Garland’s daughter.  

Reeder and 3 other members of the board made up the majority 4-3 vote that scuttled the $43,000 contract, said News Press Now.

“I just want it to be noted in open record that I’m deeply disappointed by that,” board member Whitney Lanning said. “We are a nonpartisan board and partisan politics have now set a precedent to negate any vendor we don’t like, based on who they are involved with. It’s incredibly disappointing to me that we added more work for the staff.” 

Ironically, however, under that same key Duty of Loyalty outlined in the new ethics policy, comes a sentence that would seem to justify the actions of the board in rejecting a contract from a family member of a powerful political family. 

“Board members will avoid nepotism and conflicts of interest and will take only those actions that will advance the district mission and vision,” says the policy document.  

Another line in the policy admonishes board members to “Avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance thereof …”

Both lines could be applied to reject contracts from family members of Garland, especially because critics have charged him with being overly involved in matters of local school boards. 

Reeder told The Lion that while other members of the board who voted against the contract were aware of the Biden ties, he was not. 

“I voted against it because of language in the contract,” he said.