The difference between the appearance and the reality of ethical conflict is more narrowly drawn by the public these days, something that any conscientious official must recognize.
So there should have been ample warning for the Harford County school system that paying for a retreat for administrators with donations from vendors to 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., this week. But it will cost the school administration and the school board at least that much in credibility in future debates over contracts and purchases and other business-school relationships. And in public trust.
The retreat planners went beyond accepting donations from companies that do regular business with the school system: They actively solicited contributions. 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 financing plan for the retreat, which in previous years was 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 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.
School board members were under a cloud then for having spent $21,000 to attend a national conference in California, while whacking $3 million from that year's operating budget. They likely would have nixed the retreat proposal.
Harford's isn't the first school system to come under the microscope for such a conflict. Prior to the recent dismissal of school Superintendent Stuart Berger, the Baltimore County school board also came under fire for scores of trips by administrators and teachers to resort locations that were financed by a company seeking a $5 million county contract.
School budgets are under enormous pressure; more outside funding, by PTAs or business-school partnerships or autonomous foundations, is seen as one answer. But soliciting vendors by Harford school officials to fund an administration retreat is another matter.