Schools rethink code of ethics

Re-examination of rules urged for years by Hiltz

`Ethics should be open, helpful'

Paid tutoring by teachers is an ongoing quandary

Carroll County

March 30, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

When Carroll school board member Thomas G. Hiltz first looked over the school system's ethics policy, he found just about everything to be in order.

Upon closer examination, however, Hiltz discovered that he could possibly accept an all-expenses-paid trip to Lake Tahoe or some other far-flung locale from a company that does business with the school system simply by offering the flimsy justification that he was participating in a panel discussion for the company.

"If you read it, it certainly appears that we have a stronger policy than we actually do," Hiltz said in an interview last week. "You get the impression that there's probably the good framework for an ethics ordinance there, but there are critical elements that the board needs to talk about."

After more than two years of Hiltz's repeated urging, school board members have done just that, beginning last week what could be a months-long process of re-examining and beefing up ethics rules that govern their behavior, as well as that of the county's 28,000 public school employees.

The board spent two hours Friday afternoon debating broad guidelines - such as whether the board wants to articulate professional standards for its employees, specify a system for ethics enforcement and formulate an appeals process.

Members also explored such nitty-gritty details as the volume of business a company must do with the school system before school officials are required to disclose stock ownership or any other involvement in them.

Certain school system decision-makers, including principals, assistant superintendents, department directors and school board members, must file annual financial disclosure forms that reveal whether they hold stock or are employed by any companies with which the school system does business.

But Hiltz and board colleague Laura K. Rhodes argued that such forms are meaningless unless the employees filling out those forms know the names of the companies with which the system does business.

Superintendent Charles I. Ecker told board members that he's happy to provide such a list, but questioned whether decision-makers really need to know about every office supply company that sells $25 worth of markers to a school.

"If you own enough shares in a company that you stand to benefit from their dealings with the school system, you're going to know that the school system does business with them," Ecker said. "But we'll give you a list. You just may have to do some weight training before you can lift it."

Board members also discussed one of the most prevalent - but undocumented - ethical quandaries facing educators. Stephen Guthrie, the district's assistant superintendent of administration, said he gets calls "all the time" from teachers asking whether they can tutor students for extra pay.

"It's the most common ethics question we get," Guthrie told the board. "We read them the policy, we give them our perception and we work through it with them. In most cases, the answer is no. If the student is in their class or if there's the chance that student could ever be in their class, they can't tutor them."

A clause in the "conflicts of interest" provision of the school board's current ethics policy prohibits employees from holding "any outside employment relationship that would impair their impartiality or independence of judgment."

But despite such a generality, board members said they wanted those types of rules - from teachers' tutoring restrictions to other practical matters that generate questions among employees - spelled out more clearly.

"The aura surrounding ethics is that everyone shies away from it because of the view that it's tricky or that if you do it wrong, you'll get in trouble," Hiltz said. "I don't think that's a helpful approach. ... I think ethics should be open, it should be helpful and it should encourage participation."

Modeled after a decades-old state ethics commission regulation, the Carroll school board's ethics policy is a patchwork of revisions and amendments that critics say has left gaping holes and that has not kept up with the times.

"It's been modified and amended many times, but it needs a healthy update and it needs a good cleaning," Claire Kwiatkowski, president of the Carroll County Council of PTAs and a member of the Carroll County Board of Education Ethics Panel, said in an interview last week.

Hiltz also complained that "dissection" of the current ethics policy reveals "way too many exceptions under the conflicts-of-interest section for people who contract with or who are under the authority of the school system."

He offered as an example a provision that school officials and employees may accept "gifts of tickets or free admission to attend a professional or intercollegiate sporting event ... if the purpose of such gift or admission is to further the educational mission" of the district.

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