Baltimore County's school superintendent yesterday defended as "marketing" the trips he and at least 70 other school system employees took to Arizona or Florida, courtesy of a company seeking a $5 million no-bid school contract.
Publicly discussing the controversy surrounding Educational Management Group Inc. for the first time, Superintendent Stuart Berger said, "I believe what's going on here is EMG is trying to sell a product. If EMG wants to take them to Phoenix . . . I don't have a problem with that."
But school board member Robert Dashiell said some board members are concerned over the appearance of impropriety by administrators.
"There has been some discussion by board members of establishing a code of conduct governing ethical issues, of how we conduct business," said Mr. Dashiell, who has criticized the relationship between the school system and EMG of Scottsdale, Ariz.
Nine county schools use EMG's on-line and satellite-based instructional programs, in contracts worth $3.5 million, said an official with direct knowledge of the contracts. The proposed expansion would bring the program into 68 schools and training sites over three years.
School officials defend the no-bid contract, saying EMG is the only company offering lessons designed to a teacher's specifications.
However, before voting on the proposed $5 million contract, the school board has requested an investigation into possible ethics violations by school employees who took EMG-financed trips. Reports of trips to Orlando, Fla., and Scottsdale have surfaced over the past week. Yesterday, an EMG spokesman confirmed that the company also had offered to pay for two county administrators to fly to Miami.
But Andrew Giangola, the spokesman, also said county school officials had asked him to stop answering media inquiries about the trips.
"We have been asked by [schools spokesman] Don Mohler that they be the source of information for EMG trips concerning Baltimore County school officials," Mr. Giangola said. "They are the customer and the customer's interest is of utmost importance. If they ask, we will comply."
Dr. Berger was among about three dozen administrators who visited EMG's Arizona headquarters during the last school year. More than 30 teachers also went there for training, as required in the county's contracts with EMG.
"I just don't see anything wrong with it," Dr. Berger said. "I have never been given anything by EMG but a plant." He said he received that after he broke his arm last winter.
"I don't intend to get anything from EMG," he said. "I hope the contract passes, but my economic status will be the same if it does or doesn't."
Dr. Berger said school officials have visited other corporate headquarters, at the companies' expense, and decided not to buy their products. He would not identify the firms.
Still, Mr. Dashiell said, school board members remain concerned.
"I am not a lone ranger in my position and there might come from this a standard of how we conduct ourselves in this system in the future . . . " he said. "We need to set the record straight and let some good come from this. We are forgetting through all of this noise who are our most valuable assets -- the children."
He would not identify other board members unhappy with EMG's proposed contract. And though he said that he probably vote will against the $5 million contract, he added, "I can't speak for my colleagues."
Board member Sanford V. Teplitzky said late last week that he was "concerned any time there is the appearance of impropriety."
"I don't mean to demean the reports that are out there, but we ought to be looking at if the system is the right one for us," he said.
Two board members also traveled to EMG's Arizona headquarters. Their expenses were paid by the school system, school officials said last week. Mr. Mohler said the school system paid $350 apiece for airline tickets for board members Dunbar Brooks and Alan Leberknight.
Mr. Mohler and Dr. Berger went on five-day vacations beginning yesterday afternoon and were unavailable for further comment. No other school official was designated to answer media questions.
Before declaring the information freeze, Mr. Giangola said EMG offered to pay airfare for two county administrators who went to Miami in January on Super Bowl weekend.
H. Scott Gehring, director of elementary schools in the Southeast area, and Richard L. Barringer, Southwest area superintendent, visited Teldar Elementary School in Broward County the Monday after the football game.
Dr. Gehring, a strong proponent of EMG technology, said "we declined" the company's offer to pay their round-trip airfare.
"They always make the offer when you're going to visit an EMG site," he said. He said the company only paid for their lunches.
Mr. Giangola said the two administrators "never submitted their airfares for reimbursement. We escorted them to the school site that Monday and bought them lunch."
Dr. Gehring said neither administrator attended the football game.