About three dozen top executives and administrators from the Baltimore County school system were flown to Arizona and lodged at a four-star hotel by a multimedia education company being considered for a $5 million, no-bid school contract.
The company also paid for training trips by 33 county teachers, school system spokesman Donald Mohler said yesterday.
Mr. Mohler said the 72 board members and employees visited the headquarters of Educational Management Group Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz., between October 1994 and May 1995. He said he "was not aware" of trips by school employees before October, although at least one former principal went in late 1993 or early 1994.
For all but two of those employees -- who included the school superintendent and the head of the technology office -- airfare, hotel accommodations, meals and other expenses were paid for by EMG, officials said.
Board member Robert Dashiell said he was "shocked" that so many school officials and employees had traveled courtesy of a company doing business with the county.
"It's repugnant to me," he said. "I can't fathom anyone looking at this arrangement and not seeing an unhealthy relationship. I can't conceive of myself now voting to approve that contract."
"I don't think anybody deliberately did anything wrong, but I want to be sure," said Calvin D.Disney, the newly elected board president, adding that he had asked school system lawyers about state and local ethics policies that might apply to such trips.
EMG officials have defended the trips as a way to allow administrators to try the high-tech system, which provides on-line and satellite-based instructional programs.
Among those who were guests of EMG at the four-star Ritz Carlton Hotel were Superintendent Stuart Berger and Robert Cox, head of the school system's office of technology.
Mr. Cox, who made three trips, led the presentation Tuesday to )) the school board on the proposed three-year EMG contract. He told the board that he has sought no other bids because EMG's services are "unique" in the field.
Regarding the teachers' trips to Arizona, Mr. Mohler pointed out that the school system's initial agreement with EMG -- for pilot programs in about 30 schools this spring -- included on-site training at the Arizona headquarters. School employees trained in Arizona could then train others to use the services back in the county.
The school system has spent about $3.4 million with the company, and several schools have separate contracts with EMG. The proposed $5 million contract would expand EMG's services into 68 county schools and training sites.
Mr. Disney said he had not received answers from school system lawyers about possible ethics violations. If there were such infractions, they will be personnel matters and will not be discussed publicly by school officials, he said.
All school board decisions about EMG contracts will be made during public sessions, Mr Disney said. The board is likely to vote on the $5 million contract at its August meeting.
Ben Maser, who retired in June as the principal at Church Lane, the county's first elementary technology magnet school, called EMG's program "unparalleled, allowing teachers to do what previously couldn't be done in the classroom."
Mr. Maser, who lives in Arizona but has no affiliation with EMG, said that when the company's equipment was being installed at Church Lane between January 1993 and March 1994, he was the guest of EMG in Phoenix for "a conference and demonstration." He said EMG paid for his airfare, food and other expenses, but that he paid his own hotel bill.
Mr. Mohler said that besides Dr. Berger and Mr. Cox, the school officials who went to Arizona courtesy of EMG were two of the superintendent's senior assistants, 19 members of the central office administrative staff and 16 principals and assistant principals.
"It truly is not a vacation," Mr. Mohler said of the trips. School employees said it was not uncommon to work from 7:30 a.m. until early evening while in Arizona, he said.
Daniel Scroggs, technology coordinator and teacher at Hillendale Elementary School, spoke favorably of EMG's program the school board Tuesday. Yesterday, he said he attended a weekend "user's forum" in Scottsdale last year.
"We were going from morning to night," he said. "I don't even remember the name of the hotel."
EMG, a subsidiary of the large publishing company Simon and Schuster, advertises itself as a "classroom without walls, only windows." The company's package includes equipment such as satellite dishes and fax machines, and educational materials used to teach subjects such as math and science.
A central feature of EMG's service is a "Custom Curriculum" that allows teachers to order materials and satellite feeds tied directly to topics they are teaching.
Nationwide, EMG's services are used by about a million students in 3,500 schools, company officials said.
Mr. Mohler said county funds were used to pay for the trips of the two board members -- Dunbar Brooks and Alan M. Leberknight -- and for one of Mr. Cox's visits in mid-December.
Mr. Brooks, however, said yesterday that he thought EMG had paid for his trip. Mr. Leberknight said, "I really don't know who paid for the trip. I really don't."
In a related development, another school system employee, John Chester, a 23-year-old producer in the system's television channel, worked for the company on a personal $25,000 contract until it expired this month. The contract will not be renewed, dTC EMG officials said.
No administrative action was taken against Mr. Chester because he is not involved in negotiating the $5 million pact, Mr. Mohler said.