After almost a week's worth of Evening Sun stories on a multimedia education company's $5 million bid to the Baltimore County school system, Superintendent Stuart Berger finally went on the record about the controversy with reporters Joe Nawrozki and Mary Maushard.
And promptly put his foot in his mouth.
"I just don't see anything wrong with it," Dr. Berger said of the fact that more than 70 school officials and teachers accepted expenses-paid trips to resort areas from Educational Management Group Inc. of Scottsdale, Ariz.
EMG, which already supplies its high-tech video programs to nine county schools at a cost of $3.4 million, is trying to sell the county on a $5 million expansion of the company's services. Part of the sales pitch has involved flying school officials and teachers to see EMG products in action at locales in Arizona and Florida, with EMG graciously picking up the tab.
Right away, this raises two questions. One, if the programs have been in place in Baltimore County schools for the past few years, why did the educators find it necessary to fly to these far-off resorts for another look?
And, two, why is it that these "marketing" excursions -- that is Dr. Berger's term -- are never held in places like Camden, N.J., or Akron, Ohio?
There is no way that Dr. Berger and his staffers can rationalize accepting these trips. The conflict-of-interest arising from this situation should be apparent to a sixth-grader. What's baffling, and maddening, is that it didn't set off alarms among the adults who run the county's public schools.
Clearly the superintendent and his underlings failed to realize the impropriety of taking freebies from a contractor that already does business with the school system and aims to do considerably more.
Even if they are guilty of "only" an unintended lapse in ethics, their actions will inevitably damage public confidence in the people entrusted with educating the county's children.
The travel controversy won't help EMG's chances of convincing the county school board to accept the $5 million bid. More important, it will probably detract from the debate that needs to be held on the merits of the EMG approach. The focus should be on whether this is the best way to spend money when the system suffers from a shortage of materials and teachers, and whether it is right to increasingly rely on TV images to instruct a generation already video-saturated and passive about learning.