Rebuilding trust

June 02, 2006

Baltimore's beleaguered school system is trying hard to regain public confidence and trust. That's a key reason why the Board of School Commissioners has insisted that Chief Operating Officer Eric T. Letsinger vacate his post after allegations that he planned to use system funds to pay for a chartered boat trip. While the situation is regrettable, the taint seemed to be too damaging for Mr. Letsinger to continue functioning effectively - and the school board is making every effort to be consistent in applying the same standards of conduct to all of its employees.

Mr. Letsinger, who came to the school system after serving as deputy housing commissioner in the administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley, was responsible for facilities management, food services, police and transportation, supervising about 1,000 employees. He was generally credited with pushing forward several construction projects that had been stalled, improving environmental safety and developing maintenance schedules for boilers, heaters and roofs that had long been ignored. An important accomplishment during his yearlong tenure was overseeing the process of closing and reorganizing schools as a consequence of declining enrollment and the threatened loss of state building funds.

But last month, Mr. Letsinger and his top staffers took a weekday fishing trip on a chartered boat. While everyone used vacation time, the trip was originally planned as a staff retreat and arrangements were made to have the school system pay for it. Mr. Letsinger said that he personally handled the bill once the outing became strictly recreational. But the trip, as well as some other anonymous allegations of misconduct, prompted an internal investigation, which was proper. Anonymous allegations are hardly the standard for dismissal, but the school board - which has not revealed its findings - seems to have concluded that sufficient questions were raised to warrant letting Mr. Letsinger go.

Top school administrators must now find a replacement who can sustain community cooperation and lead the system through the important facilities and other work that Mr. Letsinger supervised. That's a challenge, but the system must be committed to maintaining the public trust.

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