Deering High School officials are tightening the rules governing the use of school stationery after the athletics administrator broke district policy by using school letterhead to write a glowing testimonial touting the services of two local doctors – one of whom is her wife.
“It is a letter that should not have been sent,” acting Superintendent Jeanne Crocker said of the Dec. 7 letter signed by Melanie Craig and distributed to local doctors by Port City Physical Therapy. The outpatient physical therapy clinic is owned by Craig’s wife, Dr. Wendy Richards.
The letter by Craig violated a district policy that says “employees shall not endorse products or services in a manner that will identify them as employees of the district.” It also raised ethical concerns because Craig didn’t disclose her personal relationship with the doctor, which is a breach of basic professional standards, sports ethics experts say.
In the letter, which was mailed to local doctors and posted on the Port City Physical Therapy website before being removed, Craig writes, “Deering Athletics is proud to partner with Greg Tosi LATC, Dr. John Colianni, MD and Wendy Richards, DPT.”
Tosi, a certified athletic trainer, is a full-time district employee of 14 years, and Colianni is a doctor at Martin’s Point Health Care. Richards and Colianni volunteer their time at Deering home games to provide medical help, an arrangement similar to those at most high schools nationwide. Vermont recently passed a bill requiring schools to have medical personnel at all collision-sport games.
In her letter, Craig doesn’t ask doctors to refer patients or make any direct appeal, but she describes Port City Physical Therapy in glowing terms, saying she was a patient there herself without mentioning that Richards is her wife or that she owns the clinic.
“All I can say is that Wendy, Gary and the staff at Port City Physical Therapy exceeded my expectations, both personally and professionally! What an amazing team!” she wrote. “I could not have been more impressed. … I am proud and thankful that places such as Port City Physical Therapy exist.”
VIEWED AS AN INNOCENT MISTAKE
Craig doesn’t face any disciplinary action, but has apologized for the letter, Crocker said.
“I told her (the letter) was ill-advised and she should have consulted with the principal or me. She said she had looked at policy and thought it was OK, but after talking with me she agreed and said it wouldn’t happen again,” Crocker said. “I really took it as an innocent mistake.”
Professional associations for athletic directors have codes of ethics that spell out expectations for school leaders. The National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association’s code says athletic administrators should “promote high standards of ethics” and “avoid(s) using their position for personal promotion.”
Shawn Klein, a philosophy professor at Arizona State University who specializes in sports ethics, said that even if an explicit policy doesn’t exist, it’s “common sense” to separate professional responsibilities from personal interests.
“I can believe it was an innocent mistake, not knowing this would violate a policy,” Klein said. “At the same time, it seems like common sense when an administrative authority, to not promote another business without official approval. That seems like something someone in an administrative capacity would know just by being an administrator.”
He added that it’s a “little more worrisome” that Craig didn’t disclose her personal relationship with the company’s owner.
“Wouldn’t you know better?” he asked.
When asked about the letter, Craig said she didn’t want to comment on the situation, and referred questions to Deering Principal Ira Waltz. Richards, Craig’s wife, did not respond to requests for comment.
Crocker said she learned about the letter from School Board Chairwoman Marnie Morrione, whose husband, a doctor, received the letter at work. The board also received an anonymous letter in mid-January from someone who said they received Craig’s letter at work. The letter writer, who signed as a local doctor, objected to Craig’s testimonial and raised questions about the ethics of any arrangement between Deering High School and a company led by someone married to a school official.
WEIGHING FACTORS FOR RESPONSE
Crocker and Waltz both said they considered certain factors in determining how to respond. They noted that Craig’s letter doesn’t directly recommend that anyone use Port City Physical Therapy, but only describes her own experience, nor does the school district have a financial relationship with Port City or the other doctor mentioned in the letter, who works at Martin’s Point.
“I think it was an error in judgment,” said Waltz, noting that school staff, including Craig, only make medical referrals to primary care physicians by providing a list of doctors. They don’t recommend any particular doctor or medical specialist, including physical therapists.
“There’s no potential of financial gain,” Waltz said.
He said a team of school employees, including the school nurse and Craig, select local doctors based on their ability to volunteer their time and attend the games. Deering selected Port City in 2013, two years after Craig was hired, and Martin’s Point in 2012, Waltz said.
ACCESS TO STATIONERY RESTRICTED
He said Craig told him that she wrote the letter and gave it to Richards, who in turn mailed it out to doctors in the area and posted it on the clinic’s website. After learning about the situation from Crocker, Waltz changed school policy to limit access to school stationery and began educating school employees about existing district policy about endorsements.
“It raised the bigger question, ‘What is going on on school stationery?’ ” he said. “So it’s a tightening up of who has access to our letterhead to ensure this type of testimonial doesn’t happen again.”
The district’s policy also stipulates that the district should “refrain from purchasing supplies, equipment or services from a city employee, a member of the household of a city employee, a member of the School Committee, City Council, or other member of an elected city board.”