Ethics 101 in Baltimore County Behavior code: Better late than never, school system weighs its own guidelines.


IT TOOK AN ethical embarrassment to inspire Baltimore County schools to develop its own code governing conflicts of interests, lobbying and contract procedures, but better late than never. Officials are drafting fairly comprehensive guidelines that should help the system act in taxpayers' best interests.

The county's schools have not been without ethical oversight. As part of local government, they have been subject to county ethics laws since 1979. However, every school system in Maryland except Baltimore County decided to write its own rules, tailored to the kinds of problems likely to surface in educational bureaucracies. Baltimore County schools considered the county laws sufficient until last year, when a technology contractor treated 70 educators to a trip to its Arizona headquarters while negotiating a $5 million, no-bid contract. County ethics laws did not specifically address such influence-peddling.

The document now under consideration by the school board does. It also regulates the receipt of gifts by board members and employees; defines and prohibits conflicts of interest; calls for financial and lobbying disclosure and sets up an ethics panel to review alleged improprieties.

As always, the devil is in the details. To its credit, the board did not rubber stamp the draft, written by the administration and based on input from a 20-member committee of business and community leaders, but is taking time to examine the specifics. They seem concerned, as they should be, that the code is tough enough to protect against exertion of inappropriate influence or use of the system for personal gain, but that it does not punish insignificant behavior or connections. For example, the policy bars employees and board members from accepting gifts over $25, a standard and important component of any ethics code. But it's necessary to specify what constitutes a gift so, say, a teacher isn't prohibited from accepting a textbook for review.

The board also needs to consider the logistics of how this policy will be carried out. Who will keep track of paperwork, education of employees and routine dispensation of advice on potential problems? How much will it cost? It makes sense for the board to resolve these issues before an ethics policy is approved.

Pub Date: 9/13/96

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