Poor Grip on Reality at Greenwood

July 24, 1995

The Baltimore County school system has a few dozen officials who could use a better grip on reality -- and we don't mean the virtual kind.

There's no way that officials, including Superintendent Stuart Berger, can rationalize accepting trips from a multimedia education company being considered for a $5 million, no-bid contract with the school system. The conflict-of-interest arising from this situation should be apparent to a sixth-grader. Why, then, did it not set off alarms among the adults who run the county's public schools?

No doubt Dr. Berger's harshest detractors will assume the worst -- that Educational Management Group Inc. and county school officials have a cozy arrangement in which the expenses-paid trips to Arizona and Florida for county school administrators and teachers will lead to $5 million worth of additional commerce between EMG and the county. (To date, nine county schools have used EMG's high-tech video programs. The cost: $3.4 million.)

Hard proof of such a quid pro quo does not yet exist. Given Dr. Berger's "I don't see anything wrong with it" defense of EMG's "marketing," it's most likely he and his underlings failed to realize the impropriety of taking freebies from a contractor that already does business with the school system and seeks to do much more. Even if they are guilty of "only" an unintended lapse in ethics, they will continue to be subjected to disturbing questions about their motives. Such questions damage public confidence in the people entrusted with educating the county's children. For this, the wandering school officials are to blame.

The county school board will soon decide whether to accept the $5 million EMG bid. The travel imbroglio won't help EMG's chances. It will probably distract from the serious debate that needs to be held on the merits of the EMG approach. For example, is this the best way to spend money when the system suffers from a shortage of materials and teachers? Is it right to increasingly rely on TV images to instruct a generation already video-saturated and passive about learning?

These are the types of questions that ought to be raised by the EMG proposal. Unfortunately, the school administration's behavior in this matter has pushed an entirely different set of concerns to the front of the discussion.

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