An obscure ethics panel that rarely meets more than once a year now finds itself tasked with deciding whether Anne Arundel County schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith was wrong to accept a cash prize last 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.
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, [chairing 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 other volunteer members of the panel are Paul Higgins Jr., an employee of the National Security Agency; Mary McManus, an interim dean at Bowie State University; and Janet Anderson. One seat is vacant.
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.
The panel has not found anyone in violation of the board's ethics policy in recent memory.
Although Smith received the cash prize last year, questions about it surfaced during negotiations this spring over a lean county budget that will freeze teachers' salaries. Some teachers said they were concerned that Smith may have been influenced by the McGraw-Hill award to spend heavily on the publisher's products.
Smith has recommended spending about $7 million on Open Court -- about the same amount he had recommended spending on the program in Charlotte. It was his work in that school system that McGraw-Hill recognized.
The superintendent learned he had won the award before he started work in Anne Arundel County last July, but received the cash prize in September.
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. 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."
Several other educators who have received the award -- including Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige -- have donated the proceeds to charitable or educational causes.
The handling of the two cases before the Anne Arundel 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.
"Maybe this whole experience, hopefully, will help the board clarify [the process]," Peters said. "Every time something of this nature happens, it's an opportunity to improve whatever the system is or is not."
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 -- most of them classroom teachers -- have fewer opportunities for ethical conflicts. Most don't grant contracts, for example, or hold second jobs that do not relate to teaching.
"A lot of it is: How high up are you, and how much influence do you have?" said County Auditor Teresa Sutherland.
Peters also was puzzled by the difference between the two groups' workloads. "Either we're very ethically sound," she said of the school system, "or there's a lack of awareness ... that there could be an ethics problem."
Regardless of why the panel is so seldom called to duty, its slowness to take action in its two cases this year has raised concerns.