Ethics at issue in job search

Board member seeks post with city's school system

He would oversee charter sites

Some say he may be seen as misusing influence

October 12, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

City school board member David J. Stone has quietly applied for a job in the school system overseeing the city's charter schools. Should Stone receive the position, he will be working for the very people who now answer to him and fellow board members.

Ethics experts have differing opinions about whether it is an ethical conflict for a board member to seek employment in the school system that he helps govern.

Some experts said Stone should have resigned from the board before applying for the job, to avoid the appearance of impropriety. But others said there is no ethical conflict unless he tries to influence the selection process in his favor.

Stone, a member of the school board since 2002, said he did not announce that he was seeking the job because he did not want to influence the process by drawing attention to himself. He told his fellow board members that he had a job opportunity that might require him to leave the board, he said.

"I am working closely with the school board's attorney to make sure that the process is ethical," Stone said in an interview. "There is nothing in the board rules that prohibits this, but I'm working with counsel to ensure that ... we're not doing anything wrong."

Under the system's hiring practices, applications for higher-level administrative jobs are first reviewed by the human resources department, then forwarded to a department head - in this case, Chief Academic Officer Linda Chinnia.

Once the applicants are narrowed down, schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland makes a recommendation to the board, which makes the final decision. Stone said he will recuse himself from the board's vote on the matter.

Copeland declined to comment. A school spokeswoman said yesterday that she did not know how many people applied for the job.

Whoever is named director of new initiative and charter schools - a newly created position - will oversee about 10 existing charter-like schools created under the New Schools Initiative, and help establish future charter schools. These are schools that are publicly funded but have greater operational autonomy. The job pays between $65,000 and $112,000 a year, depending on a job candidate's previous experience and salary level.

Stone, 41, is a certified school administrator and special-education teacher. He works at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, overseeing a partnership with three publicly funded elementary schools in the city operated by Edison Schools Inc., a private operator of schools in several cities.

As part of that job, Stone helped transform the three academically failing schools into Edison schools. He also has served on advisory groups that helped develop charter school policies for the city and state.

"I'm very committed to charter schools and believe that they may be one solution to some of [Baltimore's decreasing] enrollment issues," Stone said. "We, at the school district, are anxious to increase the menu of opportunities for families when they are choosing a school for their child."

The ethics code that governs school officials prohibits board members from using their position for personal gain, but it does not explicitly state that a member may not apply for a job in the school system.

Some ethics experts said Stone's application for the job may be perceived as a misuse of his influence.

"If this were in our jurisdiction, that would be a subject of concern," said Betsy K. Dawson, executive director of Anne Arundel County's ethics commission. "If you are on an oversight board and you are looking to be hired by people you oversee, there would certainly be issues of [abusing] prestige of office."

Abraham Dash, a legal ethics professor at the University of Maryland law school, said he sees nothing unethical in Stone's actions. But, Dash said, "It'd be a lot better if he resigned before he applied. ... He places the board, obviously, in a rather awkward spot since they'll be deciding who gets the job."

Ethics rules exist not only to prevent officials from engaging in conflicts of interest, but also to preserve the integrity of public offices, some experts said.

"It would be preferable for him to relinquish his position on the school board before making his application ... if only for appearances' sake," said Mark C. Medairy Jr., a former chairman of the state ethics commission.

"Some people might say, whether they're correct or incorrect, that this individual has got a leg up on the other applicants by virtue of his position on the school board and his familiarity with the decision-makers and the superintendent."

But Alfred H. Guy, director of the University of Baltimore's Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics, said Stone should not be barred from applying as long as the hiring process is fair and transparent.

"We don't necessarily need to preclude [candidates from applying] on the basis of a perceived conflict of interest," Guy said. "Baltimore's surprisingly small. A small number of people do a lot of things."

Stone said he has not tried to influence the process in any way.

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