Given their choice to enter into elective office, school board members are typically service oriented individuals. They are very active in their communities and are often interested in the athletic programs of their district. Thus, it is not surprising that many school board members would want to help out by coaching or assisting a coach with an athletic team. On January 9, 2019 the Ohio Ethics Commission received a request from a district’s superintendent for an advisory opinion letter on behalf of a board member. The member wanted to pursue a coaching position with the district and asked if he could accept employment as a paid coach or serve as a volunteer coach.

The opinion indicates that a board member is prohibited, under Ohio ethics laws, from being employed as a paid coach by the district they serve. Ohio Revised Code section 3313.33(B) expressly states that members of the board may not “be employed in any manner for compensation.” RC 2921.42 (A)(4) also provides that a public official is prohibited from having an interest in the profits and benefits of a contract of the public agency he or she serves. A school board member who is a compensated employee of a district would have an interest in the district by entering into an employment contract as a coach. As a result, the commission’s opinion states that “RC 2921.42(A)(4) prohibits the school board member from serving simultaneously as a paid district coach.”

The opinion further provides that a board member may volunteer as a coach without any compensation. There is no statute that prohibits a member from serving as a volunteer coach. Additionally, there is no prohibited interest in a public contract when a board member volunteers his or her time without compensation. Although, members in this position may be required to abstain from participating in matters directly affecting the athletic department. This could include voting, discussing, deliberating or taking any other actions regarding athletic department personnel. They may also be required to abstain from voting on an employment/supplemental contract for an employee who works in that sport/activity or who oversees the program in which the board member volunteers (ie – athletic director) because of concerns about undue influence. However, the Ethics Commission found that a member was “not prohibited from participating in matters that affect all athletic department personnel within the district uniformly” (i.e. voting on a CBA that includes an increase in compensation to supplemental positions) or from participating in general budgetary matters that might include funding for athletics and compensation or benefits for employees.

It appears that the Ethics Commission likely issued the opinion to address the situation where board members volunteer to take the place of a paid supplemental coach rather than to serve as a volunteer in some other capacity, such as announcing the game, taking tickets, etc. However, the Ethics Commission was not very clear in delineating between someone who volunteers as a coach versus someone who volunteers in another capacity. For that reason, board members who volunteer in a capacity other than taking the place of a supplemental position are also advised to follow the advice in this Ethics Commission opinion.