www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/sun-investigates/bs-md-sun-investigates-ethics-panel-20140104,0,6244968.story

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City school administrator had sought ethics opinion about job with SUPES

Board said she would have to donate money to the school system; Dallas Dance had worked for the company but did not seek approval or opinion

By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

3:09 PM EST, January 4, 2014

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When a top Baltimore City school official was asked by a company to help train administrators, she sought advice from the city ethics panel and was told to donate her earnings to the school system.

Sonja Santelises, the chief academic officer for the city schools until August, said last week that she worked for SUPES Academy for two days in New Jersey in the summer of 2012, using vacation days and donating her $4,000 after taxes and travel expenses to city schools.

SUPES Academy also sought the expertise of Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance, who trained 10 principals this fall in Chicago.

However, Dance did not inform the county school board, as required by his employment contract, and did not seek an opinion from the ethics board. Dance got the job nine months after the school board approved an $875,000 contract with SUPES.

Dance resigned from the $15,000 part-time job in December after a legislator and a board member raised ethics questions about his consulting for a company that does business with the school system.

Santelises said SUPES did not have a contract with the city schools. Nevertheless, the city ethics board said she would have violated a provision that prohibited her from using "the prestige of her office" for her own benefit.

"Based on the facts provided, it is reasonable to conclude that [Sonja Santelises] has been invited to present at SUPES Academy — at least in part — as a result of her position with BCPS. Therefore, the payment is in violation of the ethics policy and [she] should direct any payment, above and beyond reimbursement for reasonable expenses, to BCPS," the ethics panel's decision states.

Maryland school districts are required to have ethics panels, and their codes of ethics are similar. Baltimore County's ethics code has the same "prestige of office" clause as the city's.

After speaking to Dance in a closed-door meeting last month, Baltimore County school board President Lawrence Schmidt said that Dance had made a mistake by not informing the panel about the job. SUPES had not yet paid Dance for any work. Dance had said he intended to donate any money toward a college scholarship for a county graduate.

But a Maryland legislator is now seeking an opinion from the county schools' ethics panel about whether Dance violated the ethics code.

Santelises, who is now working for Washington-based Education Trust, said she first sought advice from the city school district's attorney. The attorney said she was not violating any policies, but they subsequently decided to ask for an opinion from the ethics panel, which reports to the city school board.

Santelises said the ethics panel's opinion was issued after she had conducted the training. She said she wanted to make sure the money went directly to the schools, so she donated it to teachers to pay for buses for field trips.

liz.bowie@baltimoresun.com