Whether a matter of appearance or of ethics, the Harford County school system should have had ample warning that funding an administrator retreat with donations from vendors who supply the county schools was improper.
Yes, it may save $20,000 from the education budget to hold the leadership meeting for 180 people in Harper's Ferry, W.Va., today and tomorrow. But it will cost the school administration and school board at least that much in credibility during future debates over awarding contracts and purchases and other business-school relationships.
Offering these vendors a chance to display their wares during the education conference as a benefit of contribution does nothing to dispel the appearance of impropriety by the administration.
The retreat planners went beyond accepting donations from companies that do regular business with the school system: They actively solicited contributions from those firms.
The school board claims to have learned about the details last month, too late to cancel the plans. Superintendent Ray Keech should have informed the board promptly of this retreat funding plan, formerly held at Southampton Middle School.
We don't begrudge administrators or teachers these staff development conferences. Certainly the retreat on the Potomac River may prove more inspiring, with fewer interruptions, than a meeting in a Bel Air school auditorium. And the per-head cost is reasonable. But the conference plans should have been publicly discussed by the school board well in advance, even as it was talking about the school system's new budget this spring.
Because school board members were under an embarrassing cloud then for having spent $21,000 to attend a national educators' conference in California, while whacking $3 million from that year's classroom budget, they would likely have quickly vetoed the retreat idea.
Harford's isn't the only school system to encounter this conflict. The Baltimore County school board came under recent fire for trips by administrators and teachers to resorts that were paid for by a company seeking a $5 million county contract.
As school budgets are squeezed by higher enrollments and greater needs, more outside funding, by PTAs or business-school partnerships or autonomous foundations, is seen as one form of relief. But the open soliciting of school system vendors by Harford school officials to fund their own retreat is clearly unacceptable.