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There's tension amid the Allentown School Board as it tries to define conflicts of interest

Allentown City Hall, Allentown Arts Park, Lehigh County Jail, prison, Allentown Center City, Lehigh Valley, Allentown School District
Donna S. Fisher
For LehighValleyNews.com
Allentown School Board President Andrene Brown-Nowell's nonprofit organization was slated to receive district transportation for summer camp participants, but she declined the service after board pushback.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The Allentown School Board has been grappling with ethical concerns over what constitutes a conflict of interest for school directors — particularly those who have day jobs with organizations that serve district students.

Much of the recent conversation on the topic has centered around board President Andrene Brown-Nowell's nonprofit organization — Fine Feather Foundation — and it's summer partnership with Allentown School District.

The youth arts and mental wellness nonprofit runs a summer camp for Allentown children to learn podcasting, songwriting, music production, dance and more.

As one of ASD's community partners for summer activities, Fine Feather Foundation was eligible to receive district transportation assistance for its summer camp participants.

But Brown-Nowell, executive director and a founder of the organization, ultimately declined the service due to board pushback over the last month as school directors accused her of creating a conflict of interest.

Still, Brown-Nowell said the criticism she received from a small number of board colleagues was unfair and inaccurate.

“I want to make it very clear that you can absolutely have a nonprofit that supports the children in ASD and be a part of the board, and it not be an ethical issue or a conflict of interest,” she said. “There is a way. I’ve done it.”

An unusual situation

Brown-Nowell isn’t the only school director whose employment has sparked ethical discussions.

School directors Ana Tiburcio, Zaleeae Sierra and LaTarsha Brown have also been the subject of board conversations because their employers partner with ASD.

Tiburcio works a seasonal position with Fine Feather Foundation as a program coordinator; she also works seasonally as a tax preparer. Sierra serves as the youth director of Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, an anti-violence nonprofit group. Brown is a grant compliance manager for the City of Allentown.

“It’s important that these relationships are disclosed before decisions.”
Phillip Hensley-Robin, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania

Brown-Nowell, Tiburcio, Sierra and Brown have all said their day jobs do not pose a conflict of interest as it relates to being on the school board.

Some have asked the school district’s attorney for legal counsel regarding their situation. Others have taken steps to avoid even the appearance of a potential conflict.

ASD solicitor Jeffrey Sultanik said it's uncommon for board members to have these types of ties to community organizations, but that’s part of what makes Allentown unique – “a significant number” of community partners work “to better the youth," he said.

Sultanik and an attorney from another law firm reviewed the situation with Fine Feather Foundation and ASD’s summer partnership program; they found no legal conflict of interest.

“We don’t give Fine Feather, to the best of my knowledge, any benefit or any right that no other nonprofit gets in terms of their dealing with the district,” Sultanik said. “If indeed that were the case, that would potentially raise questions as to whether or not there would be a conflict of interest.”

Phillip Hensley-Robin, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Pennsylvania, said there are two ethical principles of governance that apply in cases of potential conflicts of interest: disclosure and recusal.

“It’s important that these relationships are disclosed before decisions,” he said.

Hensley-Robin also said officials should recuse themselves from decisions in which there may be even a potential for financial benefit.

Da Vinci Science Center at PPL Pavilion
Donna S. Fisher
For LehighValleyNews.com
Andrene Brown-Nowell, president of the Allentown School Board, during a tour of the Da Vinci Science Center in Allentown earlier this year.

School directors’ day jobs

As for the remaining five Allentown school directors, their day jobs do not appear to have any connection to ASD.

Those board members are: Lisa Conover, Phoebe Harris, Audrey Mathison, Jennifer Lynn Ortiz and Daysell Ramirez.

Conover did not respond to a reporter's messages for this story, but according to her voicemail, she is employed as a real estate agent.

Harris works as a political consultant; Mathison is a retired Parkland School District teacher; and Ortiz is an inbound call specialist for CrediTech.

Ramirez did not respond to a reporter’s messages for this story, but according to ASD’s website, she is a community impact coordinator in Allentown. The organization where she serves in this role is not listed.

When Ramirez ran for school board in the fall of 2023, she was a supportive services coordinator for a property management company.

Summer programming debate

School directors first began having public discussions about what poses a conflict of interest at an education committee meeting June 13.

At the time, Conover expressed concerns about colleagues working for organizations in ASD's Great Explorations summer program, which was listed as an agenda item that meeting.

The Great Explorations program allows ASD to provide resources to partner organizations that are offering summer activities for district students; these resources could include staff, interns, transportation or meals.

The summer activities are funded and run independently from ASD.

“I’m not going to jail, and I’m not going to hell. I don’t want to stop anybody from participating in any of the summer activities, but I want to make sure everything we’re doing is above board.”
Lisa Conover, Allentown School Board

Conover questioned how an organization could receive funds from the district while having employees on the school board, referencing Brown, Brown-Nowell and Tiburcio.

However, the Great Explorations program doesn’t provide organizations with funding.

“I’m not going to jail, and I’m not going to hell,” Conover said at the June meeting. “I don’t want to stop anybody from participating in any of the summer activities, but I want to make sure everything we’re doing is above board.”

No conflict, members say

Brown, Brown-Nowell and Tiburcio all said their employment does not present a conflict of interest as Conover asserted.

Though the City of Allentown was listed as an ASD summer partner, Brown said she doesn’t work in any of the departments running summer activities. She works in the city’s Department of Community and Economic Development.

“It does not impact me whatsoever,” she said at the June 13 meeting.

Brown-Nowell's Fine Feather Foundation was also listed as an ASD summer partner. The nonprofit was slated to receive transportation for summer camp students who are living at the Sixth Street Shelter.

Brown-Nowell said Conover’s statements were inaccurate, but she didn’t comment further publicly. Tiburcio didn’t respond to Conover publicly at all.

Board members said Brown also took issue with Fine Feather Foundation receiving ASD transportation assistance; though she didn't share her concerns publicly as Conover did.

Shortly after Conover raised those concerns, the school directors paused for a mid-meeting, closed-door session, where Sultanik provided legal advice.

When school directors returned from the private session, they voted to move the Great Explorations item forward to the regular board meeting June 27, where it would be considered for final approval.

Conover, Harris, Mathison, Sierra and Ramirez voted to move the item forward. Brown, Brown-Nowell and Tiburcio abstained.

Board president responds

Brown-Nowell spoke with LehighValleyNews.com the week following the June 13 meeting.

She said the board and its attorney discussed whether her nonprofit posed a conflict of interest by being a Great Explorations partner before the June committee meeting.

Sultanik said he does not believe there was a conflict of interest because Fine Feather Foundation was not the only partner that would receive support services through the Great Explorations program.

A conflict of interest would exist if the nonprofit were receiving an accrued benefit not available to other community nonprofits, he said.

Brown-Nowell also said her organization has never received any money from ASD. Fine Feather Foundation is funded by Community Action Lehigh Valley.

“We need to understand what the clear definition of our roles is — what we can and cannot do.”
Andrene Brown-Nowell, president of the Allentown School Board

Even if Fine Feather Foundation was receiving ASD funds, it may not be a conflict of interest either, as long as the funding was also given to the other nonprofits partnering with the district, Sultanik said.

Additionally, Tiburico told LehighValleyNews.com that her employment with Fine Feather Foundation does not impact her work as a school board member. Tiburcio began working for the nonprofit before she was elected to the board last November.

Sultanik does not believe Tiburcio’s employment with Fine Feather Foundation creates a legal issue that needs to be resolved, he said.

Both Brown-Nowell and Tiburcio said they plan to abstain from future votes involving Fine Feather Foundation, though that is not legally required, according to Sultanik.

Ultimately, the State Ethics Commission has the final say on what constitutes a conflict of interest for public officials, he added.

Brown-Nowell said she would like to submit a request for the commission to review ASD’s situation to better understand “what partnerships can look like in the future” for other leaders.

“We need to understand what the clear definition of our roles is — what we can and cannot do,” she said.

Debate continues

Before the June 27 regular board meeting, school directors spent nearly two hours in an executive session that included another consultation with Sultanik on alleged conflicts of interest on the part of board members. It is not clear which board members were discussed.

By that same meeting, Brown-Nowell had already decided to decline the district’s transportation offer because of the pushback she received. However, she does not believe it would have been a conflict of interest to take advantage of the service, she said.

“To get over the hump, I decided to remove myself,” Brown-Nowell said after the June 27 meeting, adding she wanted to make sure the Great Explorations program was approved because it benefits thousands of ASD students.

“To me, it sounds like a personal attack."
Phoebe Harris, Allentown School Board

Conover and Brown still voted against approving the Great Explorations summer programming at the June 27 meeting, even after Fine Feather Foundation was removed from the list of organizations receiving support services. They did not explain their votes publicly.

Conover attended the meeting virtually, and Brown declined to answer a reporter’s questions after the meeting.

Brown-Nowell, Harris, Mathison, Tiburcio and Sierra voted in favor of the Great Explorations program. Ortiz and Ramirez were absent.

As of that board meeting, Brown-Nowell did not have another transportation option lined up for students, she said.

Brown-Nowell also noted Fine Feather Foundation was a Great Explorations partner last summer while she was a school director. Students in the nonprofit's summer camp received transportation from ASD at that time without pushback.

Is it personal?

Harris, Mathison and Sierra said they had no concerns about any of their colleagues’ work causing a potential conflict of interest.

Harris said she believed Brown-Nowell was being “bullied” by the colleagues who took issue with Fine Feather Foundation receiving transportation.

“To me, it sounds like a personal attack,” she said.

Ortiz similarly said she has no concerns about Brown-Nowell’s work, adding the nonprofit “does a lot for the mental health of ASD students.”

Ortiz said she does have concerns about another colleague’s work posing a conflict of interest. She declined to name the board member or share her concerns because she hadn’t yet brought the issue to the board for discussion.

Brown-Nowell and Tiburcio also said they have no concerns about fellow school directors’ employment. Conover, Brown and Ramirez did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.

Zaleeae Sierra.jpg
File photo
Allentown School Board member Zaleeae Sierra in winter 2023.

Promise Neighborhoods

Sierra and her work as youth director with Promise Neighborhoods were not discussed publicly in June, and the nonprofit is not a summer program partner.

But the board has privately discussed Sierra’s employment before, and Sultanik said the same legal standards for avoiding a conflict of interest apply to Promise Neighborhoods, too.

Sierra said the youth program she manages has no official connection to ASD, though many of the participants are ASD students.

Promise Neighborhoods’ Executive Director Hasshan Batts said his organization has some initiatives that involve ASD sites.

Promise Neighborhoods operates a wellness center at one of ASD’s elementary schools. The nonprofit also has a new anti-violence program at Raub Middle School that includes mentoring. Additionally, the organization sometimes assists with student conflicts, provides trainings and offers group programming.

“She is a professional. I have no expectations of her to do anything to benefit this organization in her role as a school board member.”
Hasshan Batts, executive director of Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley

Sierra briefly served as a mentor at the Raub program in November, she said, but stepped down from the role after conversations with school directors and district leadership.

She did so in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest; however, there was no legal issue with her serving as a mentor, she said.

Batts said he trusts Sierra to manage both her role as Promise Neighborhoods’ youth director and as a school director.

“She is a professional,” he said. “I have no expectations of her to do anything to benefit this organization in her role as a school board member.”

Additionally, Batts said the nonprofit does not receive any funding from ASD, the City of Allentown or Lehigh County. Promise Neighborhoods receives funding from federal, state and local grants, as well as donors.

Sierra said she plans to abstain from any future votes that include Promise Neighborhoods, and she’s glad the board has been discussing what constitutes a conflict of interest — that way other school directors know the appropriate ways they can serve their community.

“When funds are low, when programming is low, when staff is low, it does take a village,” she said.