There is a widespread practice in Massachusetts in which teachers organize school-sponsored trips overseas for students through tour companies such as EF Tours. These companies offer rewards programs in which teachers who organize tours through those companies can earn stipends and points towards products and free travel for themselves. In a disposition agreement recently issued on the Massachusetts Ethics Commission has concluded that this rewards program violates the Conflict of Interest Law, G.L. c. 268A, in several respects.
In Disposition Agreement in the Matter of Stephanie Viens, Docket No. 19-0009 (September 25, 2019), a teacher for the South Hadley Public Schools had organized several school-sponsored trips through EF Tours in her capacity as Culture Club Advisor. Over a 5-year period the teacher earned $5,530 in stipends and 4,516 travel points from the EF Tours rewards program for organizing several school trips to Europe, including recruiting students, parents, and chaperones. She redeemed the travel points for airline tickets and a European vacation.
The Commission concluded that the teacher had received gifts in excess of the allowed $50 ceiling for performing official duties in connection with organizing these trips, in violation of G.L. c. 268A, § 3(b). It also concluded that she had received compensation from EF Tours for performing her official duties in a matter in which the school district had a direct and substantial interest, in violation of G.L. c. 268A, § 17(a). Finally, the Commission determined that the teacher had participated in a particular matter in which she had a financial interest, in violation of G.L. c. 268A, § 19.
The Commission agreed that the matter should be resolved by the teacher paying a civil penalty of $7,000.
We recommend that school districts advise faculty who organize these trips through EF Tours or through similar student travel companies that they must opt out of any rewards program in connection with trips they are involved with in order to avoid a violation of chapter 268A. We also recommend that districts advise teachers against redeeming points and rewards they already have earned for the same reason.
If you have questions or concerns about this issue, or about school law generally, please contact any of our attorneys.
This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.