It sounded like a good way to save the taxpayers some money: have parent groups and businesses pay to send Harford County school principals and administrators to a retreat in Harpers Ferry, W. Va., this week as they prepare for the school year.
But school officials last week found themselves on the defensive, as school board and PTA members questioned the ethics of soliciting money from companies that do business with the school system.
Although critics don't question the value of the $15,667 retreat or the motives of the 35 companies and groups that donated money for it, they say the fund-raising method leaves the school system vulnerable to conflict-of-interest charges.
"It might be perceived by some people" that those who contribute might have an advantage in winning school system contracts, said school board President Anne H. Ober.
As a result of the incident, she said, the board is considering a review of its ethics code for employees -- even though "I don't think anyone did anything wrong here."
School officials say that there is no ethical violation and that none of the employees who solicited the contributions have anything to do with purchasing or contracts.
"There was not the feeling of any conflict of interest," said Donald R. Morrison, schools spokesman. He said businesses will be allowed to display information or merchandise at the hotel.
The issue emerged after school officials began looking for a way to pay for the 1 1/2 -day retreat, an alternative to the three days of workshops usually held at a county school or hotel before the school term begins.
The West Virginia retreat, which will take place Tuesday and Wednesday at the Cliffside Inn in Harpers Ferry, will feature workshops and speakers that include Towson State University President Hoke L. Smith and other top educators from Maryland and elsewhere.
Principals, assistant principals, instructional supervisors and assistant supervisors are required to attend the workshop sessions, but do not have to stay overnight.
Budget constraints drove planners to seek private sponsors for the retreat, said A. Barbara Wheeler, assistant superintendent for elementary education, who has worked with a committee for more than a year to organize the retreat.
Organizers turned to groups and companies that have partnership arrangements with the county schools, providing individual schools with goods or services such as free T-shirts, refreshments for events or speakers on career day.
"We knew that we could not use tax dollars to do this, so we thought that partners would be the way to go," said Dr. Wheeler.
Some of those donors also do business with the school system.
In all, about 35 sponsors donated enough to cover the entire cost of the event, in amounts ranging from $10 to $2,500 per donor, said Carl D. Roberts, assistant superintendent for secondary education.
Michael Ryba, owner of Yorktowne Sports/The Athlete's Foot in Bel Air, is one of the business donors who plans a display at the hotel where the retreat is being held. He said contributing to the retreat was a way to ensure good business relations with the school system.
"One hand washes the other," said Mr. Ryba, whose company earns half its money selling athletic uniforms, shoes, equipment and trophies to the school system. "Our livelihood and the existence of our business depends on the people in the school district."
Yorktowne is providing T-shirts with a retreat logo to those attending the event. Mr. Ryba, who would not say how much money his company gave, said he was not pressured to contribute.
At Famous and Spang Insurance Associates in Aberdeen, which gave between $100 and $200 to the retreat, partner Charles Ramsay said the retreat is a worthy cause. "It's important that business leaders take a hand in supporting education," he said.
Mr. Ramsay said that although his company bids on contracts to provide insurance to the school system, that did not affect his decision.
The Delaware-based Water Street Mathematics Co. has in the past provided services for free, but the retreat was one of the few times the company contributed financially to a school-related activity, said Amy Sellars, a worker with the company. She would not give the amount of the contribution.
The curriculum-consulting company responded to the request for funds "just because of the relationship that we have with the Harford County school system," Ms. Sellars said. Water Street is a paid consultant for mathematics programs in county elementary schools under the federal Title I program for disadvantaged students.
Those are the kind of connections that bother Ms. Ober.
She said that although raising private support for school activities is not wrong in itself, the school system should be more sensitive to the appearance of conflict. One way to do that, she said, might be to set up a foundation that could raise funds, without school system employees directly soliciting contributions.
Andre A. Fournier, president of the Harford County Council of PTAs, also said that parent-teacher groups should not have been asked to sponsor the retreat. He said PTAs should concentrate on activities that more directly affect the education of children.
And he, too, expressed concern that businesses contributing to the retreat might expect something in return from the school system.
"The only think I would want to know is, what do they expect in return?" he said.