Ethics at issue on Arundel school board

New member has done business with the district

May 26, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

In appointing a prominent builder to the Anne Arundel County school board - and snubbing the choice of a residents panel - Gov. Parris N. Glendening has ignited a debate over the impartiality required of school board members and the wisdom of appointed boards.

Critics are upset by revelations that the landscaping firm run by newly appointed board member Konrad M. Wayson has been paid nearly $700,000 by the school system during the past five years, including money for a sodding contract that is still under way.

They also accuse the governor of subverting the will of a residents panel formed to nominate school board candidates after a lengthy vetting process.

Wayson did not go through the process, and the panel's top choice was denied a spot on the board.

Wayson said he understands why people are upset - and said he would be, too - but he isn't going to heed calls for his resignation.

Instead, he will ask the school board's ethics panel to advise him.

"My business is construction, but if the panel says it's a conflict, then we won't [bid on school system contracts]," Wayson said. "That's the bottom line."

He's not the only member of a school board in the area to negotiate this terrain.

A potential conflict also cropped up in 1996, when one of Baltimore's most prominent developers was named to the city's school board.

But C. William Struever quickly decided that he would not let his company bid on city school projects, including schools that have been closed and are on the market for reuse.

"It's just too complicated," said Struever, head of Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse Inc. "We didn't want anybody to think I was voting to close a school so I could step in and convert it to condos."

Members of the Baltimore school board said they tend to take a strict view of conflicts of interest, and one member said the Wayson case enters an ethical gray area.

"You want to actively avoid the appearance of impropriety, and it sounds to me like this allows the appearance of impropriety," said city school board member Sam Stringfield.

The Anne Arundel school board's conflict of interest policy, last revised in 1989, states that board members cannot "be employed by a business entity ... that has or is negotiating a contract of $100 or more with the school system" with two minor exceptions.

The school system's attorney, Synthia Shilling, said she interprets the policy to mean that Wayson cannot vote on the awarding of construction projects his companies have bid on.

"He may be disqualified from voting at a certain time," Shilling said. "It doesn't mean the contract [with his company] can't happen. It doesn't mean he can't profit from his involvement in that business entity."

That view has support among members of the school board.

Vaughn Brown, whom Wayson is replacing, said Wayson should fully disclose his stake in various companies and do all he can to avoid the appearance of a conflict.

But, Brown added: "I don't think it's a big deal. ... So he has in the past profited from work done at the behest of the school board. That's a far cry from his profiting from his board service."

But a former member of the Anne Arundel school board who helped draft the ethics code and conflict-of-interest policy said Wayson appears to be committing a violation.

"Anybody in that position [on the board] who has a business interest that would be served by the school system is in a position of conflict," said Jane Andrew, who served on the board from 1983 to 1989.

The fact that Wayson's companies bid on and win school system contracts "doesn't lead me to have the greatest trust in his impartiality," she said.

For some in the county, the issue is not Wayson's business entanglements but the fact that he was appointed over the top vote-getter of the school board nominating convention.

In naming Wayson, the governor passed over Severna Park resident Jim Snider, who has previous experience on a school board in Vermont and who received more than half the votes at the nominating convention.

County Executive Janet S. Owens told Glendening she wanted Wayson for his finance and construction background, and the governor did as Owens wished.

But some citizens are outraged that the county executive would interfere with school board appointments.

"I think it's very autocratic, like she's a queen and she reigns over the county," said Debbie Coleman of Severna Park, a delegate to the nominating convention.

"She's taken away some of that belief in a democratic, free country."

The county's Republican Party has seized the opportunity to call for an elected school board, as is the case with about half of the state's 24 local boards.

That model also has had its problems.

In Prince George's County, for instance, the state recently removed the elected school board because of its frequent squabbles with Superintendent Iris T. Metts and its decision to fire her.

But that hasn't dimmed the appeal of elected boards for some.

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