An appearance of impropriety

Our view: Why is city school board silent on case of teachers asked to sell cosmetics?

March 17, 2010

We've all heard how devoted Mary Kay women are to their brand. The popular cosmetics line encourages its mostly female sales staff to invite friends and neighbors into their homes, then sell them makeup, lipstick, perfumes and lotions that make them feel beautiful while profiting the company. A Mary Kay event is a combination Tupperware party and extreme makeover that seamlessly mixes the business of selling beauty products with the pleasure of using them.

That pleasure was in short supply this week, however, after The Sun's Liz Bowie reported that several teachers at a city high school had complained that their principal pressured them into buying thousands of dollars of Mary Kay products they didn't want and were unable to resell. The teachers, all recruited from the Philippines with promises of better pay and career advancement, said they felt they had to go along with the purchases in order to please their boss, Janice Williams, the principal of the Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship. Ms. Williams, who works part-time as an independent sales director for Mary Kay, has denied any wrongdoing.

The case raises serious questions about whether Ms. Williams abused her authority as principal by allegedly pressuring her subordinates to buy or sell the company's cosmetics - especially in light of the fact that Ms. Williams was in a position to benefit financially from those transactions. Some of the teachers said they feared Ms. Williams might give them poor evaluations if they refused to buy the company's products. And some worried that if that happened, their visas might not be renewed, which would jeopardize their ability to remain in the country. From their perspective, its easy to see how Ms. Williams' apparent interest in making them Mary Kay sales associates might well have looked like an offer they couldn't refuse.

Yet city school officials have remained strangely mum about the matter, except to declare that the complaint had been handled "appropriately" and that no further investigation was warranted. School Board President Neil E. Duke said the department would not comment further on what action it took because the issue was a personnel matter.

But even without knowing what sanctions, if any, were imposed on Ms. Williams - she still has her job as principal of IBE - it's also clear officials have failed to respond appropriately to the most troublesome aspect of this case: They have yet to make a clear and unambiguous statement that what Ms. Williams did was wrong. Someone needs to come out and say that the system will not abide those in positions of authority using their power for financial gain - and that in this case, the offense was particularly egregious because the principal targeted a group of teachers in her school who were in even less of a position to resist than other subordinates would be.

Baltimore depends on Filipino education school graduates to fill its teaching ranks. But what is a potential new recruit to think after learning of this incident, hearing no strong rebuke from the district, and seeing the principal keep her job? That's hardly an argument for the kind of self-empowerment the school is supposed to teach. There's a line between entrepreneurship and extortion, and the city school board at minimum owes the public a full accounting of whether it was crossed in this case.

Readers respond
Transparency should be the rule with organizations supported by public funds. It seems as if the officials and governing body of the Baltimore City Public Schools raised the drawbridge without granting public access regarding the obvious and odorous actions of a principal. Who will watch the watchers?

McNair Taylor, Baltimore

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