Benefits consultant’s hiring of board of education member’s daughter raises ethics questions for Shawnee Mission School District

Deb Zila has represented the SM South area on the Shawnee Mission Board of Education since 2007. CBIZ, a district contractor, hired her daughter for an on-site job with the district last year.
Deb Zila has represented the SM South area on the Shawnee Mission Board of Education since 2007. CBIZ, a district contractor, hired her daughter for an on-site job with the district last year.

At the Shawnee Mission Board of Education meeting July 25, 2016, a CBIZ benefits consultant named Dave Johnson came to report on his company’s recommendations for changes to the SMSD employee benefits package. Johnson noted that CBIZ now had a “couple of employees” who worked at the district. One was Tammie McCoy, a wellness coordinator. The other, Johnson said, was “Mallory, who is sitting next to me tonight, who resides in the benefits office and has been a great help. She’s been with us with you all now for about three months.”

Johnson’s identification of “Mallory” by first name only is noteworthy. Mallory, it turns out, is Mallory Zila, the daughter of Deb Zila, who has represented the Shawnee Mission South area on the board of education since 2007. In her role with CBIZ, Mallory provides on-site benefits consulting for school district employees.

A district contractor’s hiring of a direct relative of a sitting board member raises serious conflict of interest and ethics concerns, according to H. George Frederickson, the Edwin O. Stene Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Public Administration at the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas.

“There is employment directly in the district, and there is employment in what we would call the shadow of the district,” Frederickson said. “If her pay can be in any way traced to district dollars, she would be said to be employed in the shadow of the district.”

A public institution and an elected body interested in avoiding any appearance of impropriety have an obligation to make such a familial tie known in a public form, Frederickson said.

Neither the Shawnee Mission School District’s communications office nor Zila nor Board of Education President Sara Goodburn have responded to a request for information sent early Wednesday afternoon about the hiring process that led to Mallory’s employment with CBIZ. The Shawnee Mission Post also filed two Kansas Open Records Act requests on Tuesday seeking documentation about CBIZ’s hiring of Mallory Zila. The district has to date not acknowledged receipts of those requests.

Frederickson said a situation like the hiring of Mallory could be justifiable and ethical if a candidate got the job through a competitive process where skills and experience made her a clear fit for the position.

“The question would be how did she get her job in the first place?” Frederickson said. “This may not be unethical, but it has the appearance because nepotism is unacceptable.”

He also said that having a board member’s relative employed in the “shadow of the district” instead of directly by the district raised its own concerns.

“One of the other factors to consider in this kind of situation is that because the person is not employed directly by the district, there is less direct accountability, because a contractor may have standards that are not as high as the district itself,” he said.

According to her LinkedIn profile, Mallory, who graduated from Kansas State University in 2013 and turned 26 in November, spent the two years prior to her employment with CBIZ working in customer service and retail sales roles for Nordstrom. By contrast, McCoy, the CBIZ wellness coordinator, had been working in similar roles since the late 1990s.

We’ll update this story if we get a response to any of our requests for information from the district.