By Gail Marshall
I’ve read with sadness and concern the article in the Oct. 5 issue of the Islander titled “Gousse to Pay for Patriot’s Tickets.”
The school board has tasked the superintendent with finding ways to possibly reduce the cost of health insurance provided to the employees. The school system is one of the largest employers on the island. Presumably, any local insurance agency would be interested in the business that would be generated by providing it an insurance product.
The order of events, as laid out in the article, is that Marc Gousse had been in conversation with representatives of the Cross Insurance Agency. As a result, two representatives made a presentation to some teachers and employees about a Cross Insurance product. Thirteen days later, the superintendent and director of athletics enjoyed choice end-zone seats and other perks as guests of Cross Insurance at a Patriots game. There is no explanation separate from the business contacts for why this particular superintendent and athletic director were afforded these gifts at this time on Cross Insurance’s dime.
Once the word got out, it is reported that the superintendent denied he did anything wrong, sought to avoid the appearance of impropriety by retroactively repaying the cost of the ticket and insisted he holds himself to a higher standard of ethical conduct than is necessary.
He said this sort of receipt of a vendor’s largesse is standard practice at Westbrook, his former employer. He threatened that if it is employees who are raising these objections, “they are getting very dangerously close to a personnel matter.”
He also presented an allegedly unsolicited, after-the-fact email from Allen Robbins, a Cross Insurance company executive, who claims that of course there is no quid pro quo expected as a result of their interestingly timed generosity at this “nonbusiness” event.
Further, Robbins said, “we all know” the superintendent doesn’t really make the decisions about this matter. So, apparently there is nothing to see here.
Finally, we have a statement from the chair of the board. Having consulted with Gousse, she stated the timing of the game is unfortunate, but she can’t imagine anything wrong was intended.
Here are some of the problems with all of this.
Gousse has been superintendent here for about 15 months. We have previously heard him claim that other publicized actions were normal in his former employment. In the aftermath of questions, he has acknowledged we have a different set of expectations here. It’s past time he started living by our expectations.
The right way, the only way, the obvious way to avoid the appearance of impropriety in this situation would have been for Gousse to politely decline the tickets when offered. Remunerating Cross Insurance for the tickets once the situation becomes public seems far more like an admission of wrongdoing than a sign of self-regulating integrity.
Since he is attempting to convince employees to consider changes in their compensation package, it may be that some among them object to him contemporaneously receiving Patriot’s tickets from the same business pitching them a product. That he publicly threatens employees with disciplinary action for objecting to his conduct is reprehensible.
The email from Robbins is, on its face, self-serving. It doesn’t look great that the insurance company is dishing out Patriots tickets to would-be customers, especially those employed by taxpayers. It should dissuade the board from being willing to do any business with them. And Robbins is flat wrong about this: a superintendent has a pivotal role in advising and informing the board and staff about the best way to proceed in anything pertaining to personnel matters. Every superintendent, Gousse included, is at the heart of such decision-making, whether or not he has a “vote.” If he’s not, he’s not doing the job a superintendent is hired to do. It stretches credulity to suggest that Cross Insurance company representatives did not realize that.
Gousse is likely a “public servant” under Maine law. A public servant may not accept or agree to accept any pecuniary benefit from another knowing or believing the other’s intention is to influence the public servant’s action, decision, opinion, recommendation, vote, nomination or other exercise of discretion as a public servant.
Further, the school system has its own policy that is relevant to this matter. It reads, in part: “Mount Desert Island Regional School System – AOS #91 employees are prohibited from accepting money or things of material value from persons or entities doing business with, or desiring to do business with, the school unit. Employees may accept unsolicited items of nominal value such as those that are generally distributed by a company or organization through its public relations program. Employees of Mount Desert Island Regional School System – AOS #91 who violate this code of conduct may be subject to discipline, up to and including termination of employment and, if appropriate, referral to law enforcement.”
There certainly is enough smoke presented in the actions and timeline as written in this newspaper to make it seem imprudent for any school board official to preemptively declare that the superintendent’s actions are likely acceptable. It’s even worse to add her own public admonishment about employees making complaints without using the school complaint ladder, at the top of which sits the superintendent.
How much easier it would have been for a community that cares about ethical leadership of our schools to accept this transgression if the superintendent, when confronted with objections, had acknowledged the obvious error, apologized when issuing his repayment and terminated conversations with the Cross Insurance company about their products.
But by arguing aggressively that he has done nothing wrong, attempting to buttress his arguments with the transparently flawed protests of innocence from Cross and threatening that those under his control who may suggest otherwise are risking disciplinary action, he has made it inevitable that some may suggest it is not they but he who should be the one subject to personnel disciplinary review by the board.
I urge the board to take this matter very seriously and deal with it appropriately.
Gail Marshall is a Mount Desert resident and former MDI Regional School System board member.