City schools deputy put on leave

Step taken pending a probe into whether Copeland aide tried to use public money for boat trip

May 25, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

The Baltimore school system's chief operating officer was placed on paid administrative leave yesterday pending the results of an investigation into whether he tried to use public money to charter a boat for an employee trip.

School officials are trying to determine whether Chief Operating Officer Eric Letsinger acted appropriately when he took 10 school system and city officials fishing on the Chesapeake Bay on Friday -- part of a broader investigation begun this week into a series of allegations of misconduct among senior schools staff.

Letsinger, one of schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland's top four deputies, said Tuesday that he used his money to pay for the $1,600 daylong trip, and that he and all of the other employees who attended used vacation time.

But he acknowledged that he had originally intended the trip to be an opportunity for strategic planning and team building, which he said would have been a legitimate use of school system funds.

When the trip instead became a day for relaxation, he said, he decided to pay the $1,600 himself.

Expressing `regret'

After yesterday's disciplinary action, Letsinger said: "I understand the decision. I regret to have brought this unfortunate attention on the school system, and I look forward to a swift investigation and resolution."

Letsinger is a former deputy commissioner of Baltimore's housing department who became the school system's chief operating officer a year ago.

Widely seen as an ally of Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic candidate for governor, Letsinger oversees school maintenance and construction, police, transportation and food services.

His employees have been working in recent months to close several school buildings and on contracts to provide schools with energy-efficient upgrades.

O'Malley said in a statement yesterday that he supports the school system's investigation, and that he does not believe that using public funds to pay for a charter boat trip is an appropriate use of education resources.

"Some things that may seem acceptable in the private sector are completely unacceptable in government," O'Malley said. "After all that our school system has been through in the past few years -- making a lot of tough decisions to rebuild confidence -- administrators need to be crystal clear in making sure every dollar goes to educate children. I expect this matter to be dealt with swiftly and clearly."

The review of Letsinger and the charter boat trip is part of a broader investigation of top school system officials announced by Copeland during Tuesday night's city school board meeting.

Anonymous letter

School board members and O'Malley received an anonymous letter this week detailing nine allegations of "willful and abusive spending" and other misconduct among senior school staff, including drinking alcohol at the system's North Avenue headquarters.

School system spokeswoman Edie House said the system will complete the investigation into all allegations "as soon as possible."

She said Letsinger was the only employee who had been placed on leave.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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