Ethics panel rules in favor of superintendent

Taking publisher's award did not violate policy

Firm does business with district

Vitale says she'll review school board's regulations

October 28, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

An Anne Arundel County ethics panel has ruled that schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith did not violate conflict-of-interest rules when he accepted a cash prize from an educational publishing firm that does business with the school system.

The school board's ethics panel found that the superintendent was within his rights when he took the $25,000 educator's award from McGraw-Hill Cos. in September of last year because school staff - not Smith - independently evaluated and recommended using the publisher's elementary reading series countywide.

"There never has been a question in my mind about any ethical violation," said Smith, who later gave the cash away for scholarships under public pressure. "I was just pleased to see it was confirmed by the ethics panel."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in some editions Tuesday, incorrectly identified the source of an ethics inquiry about businessman and school board member Konrad M. Wayson. Jane Andrew, a Severna Park parent and former school board member, filed the inquiry with the school board ethics panel.

But critics say Smith gave the appearance of impropriety by initially keeping the money while openly supporting the Open Court reading program, asking the county for $7 million to bring the program to Anne Arundel's 77 elementary schools.

"It raises eyebrows," said County Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, adding that she was surprised by the ruling, which the panel made Friday. "I think the issue was appearance more than anything else."

In June, Smith donated the money to create student scholarships after complaints surfaced from teachers upset that the school system was spending money on the new reading program while teacher wages were being frozen.

Until that point, Smith had been awaiting a ruling from the ethics panel, to which he had turned in January for an opinion about the McGraw prize and other professional relationships, including committee and board memberships outside the school system. The panel found that none of those ties were improper.

The school board policy prohibits the superintendent and certain employees from receiving gifts of more than $25 in a year from any person or entity negotiating a contract with the school system, "except where such gifts would not present a conflict of interest as determined by the ethics panel."

Smith has maintained that Anne Arundel's decision to contract with McGraw-Hill was not influenced by the award he received a few months after he became superintendent.

The prize, given by a department of McGraw-Hill that oversees corporate contributions, was for Smith's previous work as chief of Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C., schools.

That was where Smith first learned of Open Court after reading specialists in his school system singled it out as a useful tool for increasing test scores, he said.

Anne Arundel school board member Eugene Peterson said he hopes the ruling will end the controversy. "It's done," Peterson said. "Let's move on."

Smith said he wished the four-member volunteer panel had taken less than 10 months to reach a decision. "It's too lengthy" a process, Smith said.

Some County Council members said they hope the panel will become more efficient. "I think the positive outcome here is that the school board ethics panel is reformulated and active again," Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle said. "They hadn't been for a long time."

Vitale said she plans to examine the school board's ethics policy, which is modeled after that of the State Board of Education. "I don't believe our [county] ethics policy would permit what transpired," she said.

In another matter, the panel ruled that contractor Konrad M. Wayson's appointment to the school board in July of last year does not pose a conflict of interest, as a would-be board member had alleged.

Severna Park parent Jim Snider had said that Wayson held an interest in a company that did landscaping and construction for the school system.

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