Anne Arundel County schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith said yesterday that he is giving away what is left of the $25,000 educators award he accepted from a large publisher that does business with the school system - without waiting for a county ethics panel to decide whether he should keep the money.
Smith said that to avoid an appearance of impropriety and quell resentment among his staff, he will use the money, some of which was taxed as personal income when he accepted the prize, to create scholarships.
"I don't want this to be a distraction," Smith said. "We have a lot of work right now and a lot of important decisions to be made."
As superintendent in Anne Arundel and in Charlotte, N.C., Smith has recommended spending millions of dollars on books published by McGraw-Hill Cos., the publisher that awarded him the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education in the fall.
Complaints about Smith's acceptance of the cash surfaced in recent weeks as the county grappled with budget cuts that include pay freezes for teachers. Teachers accused Smith of being influenced by the award in deciding to spend nearly $7 million on Open Court, a reading series published by McGraw-Hill.
Smith has denied that charge but said he would give back the money to stop the criticism.
"I don't want anyone to have the perception that any decisions ... are made for any other reason than for the benefit of our children and our community," he said.
Julia Pruchniewski, an English teacher at South River High School, applauded the superintendent's decision but said it might not be enough to win back the support of teachers, who are angry about not getting scheduled pay raises. Many also oppose changes Smith has made to schools and are suspicious of his motives.
`One little thorn'
"That [was] one little thorn," Pruchniewski said. "There are a whole lot of issues out there." She added that "from an ethical standpoint, this might make a difference to people."
County Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale said she was glad to hear of Smith's announcement. But, she said, "I'm sorry it took so much public outcry for him to make this decision."
Glen Burnie parent Eileen Sterbach said the move "restores a little bit of his credibility."
"People who believed in him in the beginning will be able to breathe a sigh of relief," Sterbach said. "Those that don't will still be skeptical. But at least, in the end, he did the right thing."
Smith said he plans to use the remainder of the money - he could not provide an exact figure yesterday - to create scholarships for students in Anne Arundel and in Charlotte.
His attorney, Synthia Shilling, said she was looking into whether taxes on the prize could be recovered. "Certainly, he's going to maximize the amount that's going to the scholarships," she said.
For work in N.C.
Smith won the prize for his work as head of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, where he worked to improve early childhood education and helped reduce the achievement gap between minority and white students.
He said he did not spend any of the money because he was awaiting an opinion from the school board's ethics panel, which he requested in January.
The panel is scheduled to meet in two weeks and is expected to issue an opinion soon afterward.
In his January letter to panel Chairwoman Yevola S. Peters, Smith also asked for guidance about his post as chairman of the College Board, a nonprofit organization that produces the SAT and Advanced Placement course material; as director of AVID, a nonprofit group that seeks to prepare underachieving students for college; and as a member on panels that advise the federal government on education statistics and Title I programs.
Some teachers question whether Smith is influenced by those relationships when he makes decisions in Anne Arundel. The superintendent has said he wants more students to take the SAT and has invested funds to expand the AP program. He also is implementing the AVID (Advanced Via Individual Determination) program countywide.
In the letter, Smith said he receives no monetary compensation for his work with those groups, other than travel reimbursement.