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School trips can meet ethics rules

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As anyone who has been on a school trip can attest, group educational travel comes with its own set of risks.

The state Board of Education will consider a proposal to limit the state’s exposure to such risks by drawing a clear line between public schooling and private enterprise. It’s a step in the right direction.

A BOE committee has developed rules for school trips to avoid the potential conflict-of-interest issues raised by the state Ethics Commission.

The committee addressed other concerns as well, including liability and worker’s compensation for trips that are outside the core educational program — areas where it’s reasonable for the state to limit its exposure.

The school board should approve the basic framework of the plan, which would enable pending trips to take place under certain circumstances and set a clearer directive for future travel. Finding a way to ensure the viability of such valuable student enrichment should be a priority for the board, which is scheduled to act on Oct. 20.

Today’s regular meeting, when discussion is set to begin, should produce even more specific guidance on how fundraising and other planning elements for trips should take place.

The BOE committee took up the issue following warnings from the commission that teachers could be running afoul of state ethics laws.

The problem the commission legitimately raised was that some trips scheduled during school breaks for educational enrichment — to Washington, D.C., for example, or overseas — put the teachers in a conflicted position.

By working with tour companies to arrange and promote optional student trips, and by allowing the tour companies to cover the cost of their own travel, the teachers were essentially functioning as agents for the private companies to drum up bookings paid for by public school parents.

Les Kondo, Ethics Commission executive director, showed the board somewhat high-pressure brochures teachers relayed from companies to students and their parents, some claiming that the trips can lead to better academic performance.

The committee proposed criteria for a “school-sponsored trip,” including those taken by school academic and athletic teams, a school band trip, an extracurricular trip “under the purview of a school,” or a trip for an entire class that was clearly tied to class curriculum.

Those that don’t fall under that heading would be private. Teachers arranging them would have to do so outside of their regular duties, said Brian De Lima, the BOE vice chairman who served on the committee. This means that posters advertising trips, frequently seen in school common areas, could remain, as long as any contacts for signups happened outside of school, he said.

Teachers could still use school facilities for organizational meetings, as long as they reserved them and paid for them as any other member of the public would do, De Lima added.

The committee concluded that “directory” information for the students is generally not considered private, he said, unless otherwise designated. But for the purposes of a private educational trip, stricter privacy rules should apply.

As for currently planned trips, many of them slated for spring break, the committee recommended that families be told plainly that the trips are private and be asked to reaffirm their commitments.

“Everybody wants to do the right thing,” De Lima said. “You have a set of ethics laws, and they need to mean something.”

Yes, they do. Clarifying ethical procedures for school employees, while making room for educational travel, would be wise policy for the board to adopt.

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