New BKW president votes to appoint wife to teaching post

— Photo from Facebook

Carli Elble and her husband, Nathan Elble.

BERNE — At the July 2 re-organizational meeting for the Berne-Knox-Westerlo school Board, after Nathan Elble was elected president, the board voted unanimously to approve a personnel schedule that included hiring Elble’s wife, Carli Elble, as a fourth-grade teacher.

Elble did not recuse himself. Elble did disclose before the vote took place that Carli Elble is his wife. Superintendent Timothy Mundell asked Annette Landry, the elementary school principal who was seated in the gallery, to explain the hiring process.

Carli Elble will be paid about $43,000 annually for the nine-month post, the same amount as another woman hired to be a special-education teacher in the elementary school.

Mundell told The Enterprise on Wednesday that Carli Elble’s hiring was filling in a vacant position after a teacher left toward the end of this past school year.

The superintendent said that each grade level at the elementary school has three general-education teachers and one special education teacher, an arrangement that was in place when he started working for the district in 2015 and one he sees no reason to change at this time.

The number of students in each grade level ranges from 47 to 65 students, and he believes that there are 47 students in the upcoming fourth grade class, meaning, with three teachers, there would be 15 or 16 students in each classroom.

Had the post not been filled, there would have been 23 or 24 students in each of two fourth-grade classrooms. A grade with 65 students and three teachers, elsewhere in the school, would have 21 or 22 students.

“For those who will opine about ‘these are really small classrooms … ,’” he said. “Take a look at some of the class sizes that are in the top schools in the region.”

Mundell said that a smaller class size allows a teacher to better address what a student needs in the classroom and improve their performance.

The process

Landry said at the July 2 meeting that there were around 100 applicants for the position, and that four were eventually selected for interviews and evaluations by herself and a group of elementary-school teachers. Two of those teachers, Darlene Thurber and Brenda Robichaud, were with Landry at the meeting, both of whom said they hadn’t known Carli Elble well prior to the interview.

“Carli is a clear choice,” said Thurber, noting that she has seen how she interacts with students as a substitute even just by passing in the hallway.

“She knows the system, she knows the faculty here, she knows the building, she knows the whole system,” she said, noting earlier that it would be important to have Carli Elble on hand during the upcoming capital project when the building is in “turmoil.”

Landry also said that none of the teachers knew who she had asked to be interviewed until the day of the interviews.

The vote

Two years ago, Carli Elble was appointed to a four-year permanent probationary period as a teaching assistant at BKW. Nathan Elble abstained from that vote.

The following year, he was absent from a meeting in which his wife was hired as a year-long substitute teacher, but had said previously that he would have abstained from the vote.

His colleagues have also in the past recused themselves from voting on relatives, including Matthew Tedeschi who was the school board president when his own wife was hired to work for the district in personnel and payroll.

Elble told The Enterprise this week that he voted on his wife’s appointment this time because, he said, he was not sure how the four other board members would cast their votes. Employing a teacher or appointing tenure to a teacher who is related to a board member requires a supermajority, or two-thirds, vote by law, meaning one other abstention or vote against the appointment would mean, had Elble recused himself, his wife would not have been appointed.

Elble said there was little discussion before the meeting and he said it seemed prudent to vote in favor of the measure, which included hiring a number of other staff as well.

He said, regarding concerns of a conflict of interest or the appearance thereof, that a district like BKW often can’t avoid hiring a relative of someone.

“It’s really hard in a small town like us,” he said.

Elble said he would abide by the rules if there comes to be a situation of a conflict of interest, and otherwise would continue to vote for the best people for the position.

Ethical view

Mark Davies, an adjunct law professor at Fordham University and the former executive director and counsel of New York City’s ethics board, said in an email on Wednesday that state common law generally prohibits using one’s position to benefit yourself or immediate family, but if it is a widespread benefit such as a contract for all teachers in the district, it is generally allowed.

However, Davies said that this would not apply to voting on a hiring schedule that only appoints new teachers rather than addressing them all.

“The better procedure would have been to separate the spouse out of the hiring schedule, all board members to vote on the hiring schedule, and then the board (minus the conflicted board member, who should depart the room) to vote on the spouse,” Davies wrote.

Davies said that the state’s General Municipal law does not prohibit using one’s position to benefit a relative, and so it is left to a school district’s code of ethics to determine if there is a conflict of interest.

BKW’s code of ethics states that board members must not have an “interest,” or a direct or indirect benefit, from a contract that they have the power to prepare, negotiate, or approve. An “interest” would include a spouse or children, but employee contracts are excluded from this.

Interim business official

The board also unanimously voted to hire Terrence Blanchfield as the district’s interim business official after Stacy King-McElhiney resigned as business manager for BKW last month.

“Based on his résumé, he’s done it all,” said Tedeschi.

Board Vice President Kimberly Lovell noted that she didn’t see anything in Blanchfield’s contract regarding a role in training. Mundell said that he wanted to build a relationship with him first before he considers having him take on that role.

Blanchfield’s contract will have him work for the school for up to 180 days, with the district able to end his contract any time prior, though the superintendent said he expected Blanchfield to stay for the entirety of the school year. Mundell said that he will be paid $400 a day, $50 of which is for mileage as he is driving around 100 miles both ways to the district.

The post of business administrator has seen some quick turnover in recent years at BKW. King-McElhiney was in the post for two years, following Sarah Blood, who held the post for two years also.

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