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Aug 16, 2021

CPA Professional Ethics and Working with Schools and Universities

As a follow-up to a presentation at our most recent PICPA School District Conference, Jacqueline Stefkovich, EdD, JD, professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University, joins us to discuss codes of ethics for CPA personnel working with schools and approaches for navigating ethical dilemmas.

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By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor


Podcast Transcript


As a follow-up to a presentation from our most recent PICPA School District Conference, we have Dr. Jacqueline Stefkovich, professor emeritus at Penn State University, with us to discuss codes of ethics for CPA personnel working with schools, offering a multi-paradigm approach for navigating ethical dilemmas. In this case, she will explore steps that need to be taken when a community displays a preference of athletics over needed curricular budgetary items. It's a thought-provoking case study, and we are thrilled to host it on CPA Conversations.

There are four sections to the framework of the approach. Can you walk us through the sections of the framework?

[Stefkovich] The first is justice and it's basically, are you obeying the law? If the law doesn't take care of it, are you showing mercy? Are you interpreting the law or looking at the law correctly.

Care is the second one, and that's really dealing with relations and whether you're considering relational aspects when you make your decision.

Power is the use and abuse of power. Do you use your power wisely or are you abusing power?

And the profession takes all three of these into consideration. It also deals with the community and it also looks at any professional codes that have been written. In the past, the ethics of the profession were considered to be part of justice and it was just a written code. We see it as much more than a written code. It's the code plus the care, the power, and what you have learned as a professional in making decisions.

Let's take a look at justice first. When applying ethics to a scenario, how do you consider what's fair and legal?

[Stefkovich] First of all, you need to know the law and I know that's certainly an area that school administrators need to know. I would think that it's an even more important area to those who are working with accounting issues or with issues that have to do with spending money. What you have to look at first is, is it legal?

If it's really not legal and criminal, you don't cover it. If you have this relational aspect with someone, you don't cover it, you have to reveal it, but there's so many times when the law is not clear. As you may know, the laws in states can be different, so the law might not be clear. There may be ways to interpret the law that would make it much easier to solve the dilemma and consider these other issues. It's not a matter of balancing, it's a matter of is the law clear, and, if it's not, how can we work around the law to have an equitable decision?

You talk about lack of clarity there, and it comes in the idea of mercy being considered. How do you manage this since it's not always incredibly clear?

[Stefkovich] Again, it's not a balance. Mercy is basically looking at, can you give someone a break? What were the extenuating circumstances? Now, like I said, if they should be reported to the police then that's totally different. You need to do that. But if there's something that you can cut someone a break who's maybe, for instance, deciding what to do with our athletics. Maybe you need to decide how much of the money does go to athletics and maybe that year the athletic team does need more money as opposed to other situations and they could get out of the hole if you gave them more money this time but then they said they would find a way to get out of it the next time.

The thing is the letter, it's depending on to whether you're looking at what the law says or what the letter of the law says. Sometimes mercy is really looking at ... this is aside from the athletics. A number of years ago, we've all had ... well, we still do have some of those decisions with students where there's zero tolerance, but there's been laws that say it's zero tolerance, but then when you read the law more clearly that gives the administrator more discretion, and in some of those situations maybe what you need to do is not read the law specifically, but look for what the exceptions in the law are and see if they would help make the situation a little more ethical or more fair.

In caring for existing relationships, when you're dealing with ethics, how do you balance the impact on those around you?

[Stefkovich] Care is basically not so much a balance as just having it. Sometimes you can sit in your office and you can make these decisions and you pick through all your papers and just make the decision by yourself in a space that doesn't involve other people and you think this is a good decision. But if you involve relationships and try to figure out what impact your decision is going to have on others, I don't know that you have to balance the impact as much as just consider it.

Care needs to be taken when considering all the parties involved. This means stakeholders, teachers, administrators, students. So how do you prioritize caring for each one of those groups involved?

[Stefkovich] Again, I don't know if you think of it as priority as much as just who needs what when. Our way of approaching ethics using this has at its center, at least for administrators, the welfare of the students, the best interest of the students. We always put the best interests of the students first. That doesn't mean that a student walks into your office and shows up to sue you if you don't make this decision on their behalf, but what it does mean is if there's a way we can do this that the students get the most respect, if they can get the care they need, if you can teach students mutual respect and also teach students that they have responsibility for their rights, then it should balance out a little better. But again, I don't think it's to prioritize.

Matter of fact, when you're making a decision that involves maybe board members or teachers, sometimes deciding which teacher has to go, in times of financial crises, really has to do with what teacher provides that student's needs the best. Is it a subject matter of the student's need? Is it a teacher that's really an excellent teacher and the students really benefit from that teacher? It would be more things like that. There's been a bunch of situations where stakeholders that were board members, for instance, had their own priority and tried to get on the board to push their own priority, and sometimes that priority isn't in the best ... sometimes it's a good priority, but sometimes it's not a priority in the best interest of students.

In the section related to power, first you have to determine who has it, and if they're abusing it or taking advantage of it. How do you determine if there's an equality of power?

[Stefkovich] When you have an administrative position or a position like the CPAs, or a position where you deal with money, you do have power. That's not even questionable. You do have power. You have to answer to the law, you have to answer to other groups, you have to answer to whoever you're reporting to, but you still do have power and you have a lot of discretionary power. The importance of that is to look at, aren't you using that power in the best way for the students and the best way for the school, or for, in the case of athletics, for the athletic teams to help them balance with the rest of the school? Those are the kind of things you want to look for, and it doesn't necessarily have to be a priority, but one thing, this is important, is that you don't abuse your power. That you use it in an ethical way, and that you use it in a relational way to benefit others.

For groups that are lacking in power, what's the best way to go about advocating for them?

[Stefkovich] This is really hard sometimes because if you have a limited budget, you might have to make a decision ... we had talked about athletics … you might have to make a decision about do you give more money to the athletic team, or do you give more money to a non-governmental funded program, or embellish a governmental funded program to help minority kids?

I think that's probably not a “yes/no” answer. I think that's probably an answer where the stakeholders need to sit and talk about what can we do to make sure that both programs are okay. If one program gets more money one year and another program gets more money another year, can we work that out? Are there outside revenue sources that we can somehow access? It would be that kind of an issue.

The fourth section is the profession, so what would a professional want to do in an applied ethics situation? Could you give us an example of that?

[Stefkovich] We'll go back to the athletics because that's the one we have used. Basically, sometimes athletics take up a ton of money. I'm not telling your audience anything they don't know. On the other hand, they can give back in many ways. They can give back by making a little money. They can give back by community spirit, depending on how important the athletics are to the community. They can give back to the students who want to have that participation in the school. But you have to also look at, are the athletics taking away from the core of what schools are about, and that core has to do with educating students. Also, perhaps giving students the kind of professional resources they need, such as guidance counselors, or psychologists, or social workers, or whoever they need to support, or special needs teachers.

One of the things you want to look at is the whole picture and, again, here's where you need to look at a) the best interest of the students and b) the stakeholders involved. I don't know that the decision is "Yes, we get athletics," or "No, we don't." I think it's more an idea of what is the best we can do for all the parties involved without being self-centered or selfish about it, or without getting something for yourself if you give a certain group. It's really to try to look at the good of the school and the best interest of all the students.

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Podcast transcripts are provided as a summary of the conversation and have been lightly edited for the written medium. The transcript is not a verbatim representation of the interview.
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