Either the superintendent or the business manager of Bay St. Louis–Waveland School District — who are brother and sister — should resign from office to avoid the appearance of nepotism, a Mississippi Ethics Commission opinion says.
Yet the majority of Bay–Waveland School Board members disagreed, and recently voted 4 to 1 to approve an additional 18-month contract for business administrator John McCraw, as well as a contract for Superintendent Vikki Landry, his sister.
Board member Casey Favre was the dissenting vote in both cases. He said he was hesitant to approve the appointments after reading two separate opinions from Ethics Commission chief counsel and executive director Tom Hood.
The first opinion, Favre said, was sent to the board anonymously after the board announced Landry as the new district superintendent at its January board meeting.
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“There is no reason all of these decisions could not have been postponed until clarification from the Ethics Commission was obtained so there are no blurred lines as to the right decision,” he said.
In the opinion, Hood refers to the Mississippi law on family relationships between school district employees. Superintendents cannot supervise or accept recommendations of a “relative,” which includes a spouse, child, parent or sibling, Hood said.
Still uncertain of whether the rule applied to the relationship between a superintendent and a central office member, Favre requested an additional opinion from the commission.
Hood responded to Favre in early February, specifically addressing the Bay–Waveland School District.
In response to whether the sibling of a superintendent can be recommended for continued employment in the district’s central office, Hood wrote: “No ... the superintendent may not recommend a relative for continued employment, and the ‘step-aside’ provision ... does not apply to employees of the central office.”
The “step-aside” provision allows the appointment of a supervisor so a relative does not report directly to another relative. Section 37-9-17 of Mississippi law reads: “The school board of any local school district shall be authorized to designate a personnel supervisor or another principal employed by the school district to accept the recommendations of principals or their designees for licensed employees or noninstructional employees.”
At the February meeting, board attorney Ronnie Artigues and James Keith, a longtime education attorney with the North Pike and Pearl River County school boards, told the board it was acceptable for them to appoint an employee other than Landry for McCraw to report to. In response, the board appointed Kristen Ladner and Cherie Labat as assistant superintendents.
School board meetings are open to the public, and an audio recording is normally taken and saved. But when Lana Noonan, a member of political watchdog group Hancock County Alliance for Good Government, contacted the central office secretary to get a copy of the February recording, the conversation about McCraw and Landry was not on the tape.
On Wednesday, Artigues said he would make a copy of what he said at the meeting available to anyone that wanted it. He called the missing audio an honest mistake.
“The secretary realized the device wasn’t recording at the time,” he said.
The biggest issue with the relationship between the superintendent and the business manager is one of public perception, Favre said. There’s also an issue with board responsibility down the road.
“It’s problematic,” he said. “The superintendent is the CEO. The business manager is the CFO. I’m not saying anything is going on, or suggesting anything will go on. But if that’s not the case one day, it’ll all fall back on the the shoulders of the board.”
In his opinion, Hood wrote: “Public servants should conduct themselves in a manner which enhances the public trust in government and avoid actions which may tend to create public suspicion regarding the honesty and integrity of those in government. Justified public criticism can result when the superintendent is directly supervising a close relative. The Ethics Commission advises one of the individuals should resign their position.”
“This is something that will have to be dealt with,” Artigues said. “It’s a unique circumstance. If not this time around, then when their contracts come up again,” he said.
Vikki Landry served as federal programs director for the district for nearly 11 years before becoming assistant superintendent in 2015.
The Ethics Commission has the authority only to interpret ethics in government laws. Legal opinions on all other laws are issued by the Attorney General’s Office.