Baltimore County's school board, which is considering a $5 million no-bid contract for an Arizona-based multimedia education firm, is investigating travel by school officials flown to the Southwest and booked in a deluxe hotel -- courtesy of the company.
Among the guests of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Educational Management Group Inc. were Superintendent Stuart Berger and the head of the school system's office of technology, an administrator who led Tuesday's presentation to the school board on the proposed contract.
Company officials and school administrators defended the trips as routine marketing tools. "They want to sell their system, they are a private enterprise. We make no bones about our employees visiting to see how the EMG product works," schools' spokesman Donald Mohler said yesterday.
Critics said such trips, which included stays at the Ritz-Carlton, send the public the wrong message.
"School board employees ought not to attend any conferences or the like that is sponsored by a vendor doing business with the system," said board member Robert F. Dashiell. "We should cover the costs of such trips ourselves if they have any worth to begin with."
EMG is negotiating a three-year contract to expand its technology services into 68 county schools and training sites. The board could vote on the proposal next month. The company provided services to 38 schools in a pilot program that cost at least $1.5 million last school year.
The EMG package includes hardware, such as satellite dishes and fax machines, and educational materials used to teach subjects, such as math and science. EMG says it offers a unique service, a "custom curriculum" that allows teachers to order materials and satellite feeds tied directly to what they're teaching.
Nationwide, EMG, a subsidiary of publishing giant Simon and Schuster, serves 1 million students in 3,500 schools, company ,, officials said.
Robert Haines, assistant county attorney assigned to the school board, has been charged with probing travel to Arizona by county officials and employees. He could not be reached for comment.
L Mr. Mohler said the attorney will probe "from the top down."
Mr. Mohler said he did not know whether other board members, school principals or administrators were EMG guests in Scottsdale, which is near Phoenix. He also said he did not know how many trips school officials took.
have no problem with full disclosure," he said. "They [EMG] have a $2 million site out there, and they can't transport it."
In a related matter, Mr. Mohler said that a producer with the school system's educational television channel had been working for EMG on a $25,000 yearly contract. That contract expired July 1, and has not been renewed, he said.
No administrative action has been taken against the employee, John Chester, 23.
"We're happy with his work, and everything he did for EMG was on his own time, not Board of Education time," Mr. Mohler said.
Mr. Chester would not discuss details of his work for EMG.
"Everything I did for EMG was on my own clock, not on the county's," he said. "I really have no sway over who gets the contract."
Commenting on the Arizona travel, Dr. Berger said he made one trip for "no more than three days" at EMG's expense.
But when school board members Dunbar Brooks and Alan M. Leberknight went there in December, "the board paid all of their expenses," the superintendent said. "They are the decision makers. I didn't want them even remotely questioned."
Dr. Berger said the board members traveled at his request, not only to Scottsdale, but on to San Diego to see another technology, called Lightspan, which is being tested at Lansdowne Elementary School.
Mr. Brooks said, however, that he thought EMG had paid for his trip. Mr. Leberknight said, "I don't know who paid for the trip. I really don't. If Dr. Berger told you the board paid for it, I believe him."
Both men serve on the board's technology committee. Mr. Brooks stressed that EMG's products are one tool of teaching, and one brand of technology used in the county.
Robert Cox, coordinator of technology for county schools, said he traveled to Scottsdale at least three times within the past year.
He said EMG paid his airfare and hotel bills. "I went to become more familiar with their technology," he said, adding that he received no compensation from EMG.
He told board members Tuesday night that EMG's services are unequaled nationally and thus, no other firms have been asked to bid on the high-tech teaching system.
When county officials and administrators went to Scottsdale, they stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a four-star facility 10 minutes from EMG's offices.
"We do quite a business with EMG folks," said Ralph Vick, general manager of the hotel, which features two restaurants, 24-hour room service, access to a golf course, tennis courts and a fitness center.
Andrew Giangola, spokesman at Simon and Schuster, said he could not say how many Baltimore County representatives the company accommodated in Arizona. "I cannot do that on short notice." he said.
He defended the trips as a part of doing business.
"Teachers need to touch, see and feel the technology. We routinely bring administrators to EMG headquarters in Phoenix . . . " he said. "Other vendors do it. Other school districts do it.
"I would hate for the side issue of trips to Phoenix to cloud the real issue: Is this technology right for Baltimore County?"