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During a recent episode of The Education Insider podcast, I chatted with education lawyer Steve Wellvang. He’s the former president and CEO of ECMC Holdings Corp., an education-focused private equity investment company, and the former general counsel of ECMC Group, Inc., a higher-education services company, so he’s quite qualified to talk about the legal considerations, risks, and opportunities related to consulting, influencing, and other forms of “edugigging” income. Here’s what he had to say.
If you’re thinking of moonlighting, the first step is to familiarize yourself with your district’s policies, which can often be found online. If you find that outside employment is barred for district employees in your position, that may be the end of it for you. But even if there is no specific policy against it, you’re not in the clear yet. Wellvang said that you want to go beyond the specific policies and look at codes of conduct as well.
As he explained districts typically have, “a code of ethics and also typically a conflict of interest code. And so in Minnesota, for example, there's a state law that school administrators have a code of ethics just for school administrators and every school district.” However, he added:
“It tends to be more general in nature and doesn't specifically address outside employment, but there are some provisions in that code of ethics for administrators that do have some implications for outside work.”
You can read and interpret these policies on their own, but for further peace of mind you can bring questions to your supervisor or your district’s legal counsel. You can also speak with your ethics officer.
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Knowing your district’s rules and policies isn’t enough. You also have to follow them. That includes policies like not entering into conflicts of interest, not disclosing confidential information, and never acting against the interests of your employer, even if you didn’t find any specific formal guidance about it.
Your district policies likely require some level of disclosure regarding outside work, but when in doubt, opt for full disclosure.
“Get your thoughts together about what you would like to do, and then talk to your supervisor, your superintendent, or your school board chair If that's the only person,” available, said Wellvang. “If you're a superintendent, talk to the ethics officer to get a sense” where to disclose if there is no specific, clear guidance for your situation.
“Making appropriate disclosures in advance is the way to generally avoid problems down the road,” said Wellvang. “People, frankly, in this sector get crosswise with their district when there has not been proper disclosure and it surprises someone.”
If you do end up doing outside work, never use a phone, computer or other electronic device issued by the school district, even if it’s authorized for personal use. To be safe, be sure to use your own equipment and devices. And, of course, that includes things like email and social media: always use your own, never your school account.
If you’re just being paid to give the occasional lecture or otherwise picking up piecework here and there, maybe you don’t have a business. But if your moonlighting does amount to a small business, you should treat it as such by setting up an LLC and buying insurance. Your bank can usually help you set up everything you need in one stop.
As you may already know, states and districts have gotten a lot clearer on gifting rules. Even a gift card might be something to be careful about accepting. Know your gifting policies. As Wellvang explained:
“A number of districts have very specific gifting policies that are particularly specific if the employee from the district is involved in any type of procurement decisions. His advice? “Definitely you’ll want to familiarize yourself with those policies and not run the risk of violating them.”
Brand ambassadors are becoming more common, but it’s a good idea to be careful about the appearance of proselytizing for a company, especially in exchange for gifts or payments. And even if it’s not against your district’s policies, endorsing products can put your reputation at risk.
For example, Wellvang said, what if there’s a problem with a technology that you serve as an ambassador for?
“You may not have anything at all to do with the problems, but have aligned yourself with that company, there are a number of situations I've seen and read about where a teacher or somebody else can be tainted. So do your homework. You definitely want to be careful, just as you would in your full-time employment. Just because somebody offers you a consulting role doesn't mean that you should take it. Reputation in every area, but certainly among educators, is very important.”
Disclaimer: This is a blog post based on a podcast interview between Jacob Hanson and Steve Wellvang. Steve’s remarks are his own and do not represent the views of his law firm, Fox Rothschild.