Have degree, will travel

Tuition: Baltimore County should tighten restrictions but shouldn't fashion policy based on one case.

May 09, 2000

BALTIMORE County Deputy Fire Chief Patrick T. Kelly has created a minor tempest. The 26-year veteran will become the commissioner of emergency services in New York's Westchester County about a year after he earned an MBA at taxpayer expense.

Some County Council members are hopping mad. They want to limit the kinds of degrees employees can pursue with taxpayer funding and stop them from leaving after earning those degrees.

But that's an overreaction to a situation peculiar to Mr. Kelly. A more tempered response would make better sense.

Yes, Mr. Kelly left after receiving his taxpayer-supported master's degree. But he didn't just bolt with the diploma. He stuck around, hoping for promotion. It was only after he was passed over (reportedly for political reasons) that he found a job elsewhere. Anyone in that situation might reasonably do the same thing.

Moreoever, those who are angry with Mr. Kelly are overlooking the fact that he was eligible for an early retirement offer the county made to the fire department's top officials earlier this year. If Mr. Kelly had taken advantage of that, would they have been as exercised?

The point here is that employers who offer tuition reimbursement always run the risk that employees will use their degrees to get better jobs elsewhere. That's why the county ought to make sure it takes advantage of the degrees it pays for. Certainly, politics should never prevent that from happening, as they apparently did here.

And rather than requiring employees to stay on the job, the council should perhaps look at measures requiring employees to pay back a portion of the cost of their degrees if they leave within a certain time period. That kind of safeguard might prevent the kind of overreaction we're seeing on the council now.

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