An ethics panel that rarely meets more than once a year now finds itself given the task of deciding whether Anne Arundel County schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith was wrong to accept a cash prize in the fall from a publisher of education materials.
In January, Smith wrote to the panel, seeking guidance on various matters, including his acceptance of a $25,000 education award from McGraw-Hill Cos. As superintendent of the Charlotte, N.C., and Anne Arundel school systems, Smith has recommended spending millions on a reading program called "Open Court" that emphasizes phonics and is published by McGraw-Hill.
A few weeks ago, the ethics panel met for the first time since 2001. The meeting - prompted by Smith's letter - took four months to set up.
And that's not unusual. The panel meets about once a year at most, has still not issued an opinion in a high-profile complaint filed last year, and has not found anyone in violation of the board's ethics policy in recent memory.
The lapse of time has been "a little bit frustrating," said Smith, who had asked the panel to review the propriety of his award and several of his professional ties outside the school system.
Frustration is no stranger to ethics panel Chairwoman Yevola S. Peters.
She said she was surprised to receive Smith's letter. "As far as I was concerned, my term had expired," said Peters, who has served since 1992. "I thought I was finished. As far as I knew, [leading an October 2001 meeting] was my last official action."
Peters, acting executive director of the Anne Arundel Community Action Agency, said she spent the past few months trying to figure out who the other panel members were - one had resigned and two were newly appointed - and who the panel's legal counsel would be.
The panel is to meet June 25 and will try to issue an opinion on Smith's case soon afterward, Peters said. It advises the school board and does not have authority to sanction anyone for unethical conduct.
Smith has recommended spending about $7 million on Open Court - about the same amount he spent on the program in Charlotte. It was his work in that city that McGraw-Hill recognized.
He learned he had won the award before he started work in Anne Arundel County in July last year, but he received the cash prize in September.
A county law says that school officials shall not receive more than $25 from a person or entity "under the authority of the school system or has or is negotiating a contract with the school system, except where such gifts would not present a conflict of interest as determined by the ethics panel."
Last week, Smith noted that McGraw-Hill is one of the largest educational publishers and said that he did not believe he had a conflict of interest.
Several other educators who have received the award - including Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick - have donated the proceeds to charitable or educational causes.
The handling of the two cases now before the schools ethics panel - Smith's query and a complaint filed last May against board member Konrad M. Wayson - reveal that the school board's method of dealing with ethical issues is a sluggish one.
Some, such as Peters, have suggested that a re-examination of the process may be in order.
Unlike the county's ethics commission, which meets monthly and handles between 100 and 200 ethical questions or complaints every year, the school board's ethics panel considers itself busy if it gets one case a year.
Part of the reason is that school employees have fewer opportunities for ethical conflicts. Most don't grant contracts or hold second jobs that do not relate to teaching.
The other matter before the panel stems from a citizen's complaint last May against school board member Wayson, a contractor who did landscaping and construction for the school system before joining the board in July.
Peters said the panel is examining whether the complaint against Wayson, which was filed before he was installed, is valid. The panel has not begun to weigh the merits of the complaint, she said.