When Carroll school board member Thomas G. Hiltz first looked over the school system's ethics policy, he found just about everything to be in order.
Upon closer examination, however, Hiltz discovered that he could possibly accept an all-expenses-paid trip to Lake Tahoe or some other far-flung locale from a company that does business with the school system simply by offering the flimsy justification that he was participating in a panel discussion for the company.
"If you read it, it certainly appears that we have a stronger policy than we actually do," Hiltz said in an interview last week. "You get the impression that there's probably the good framework for an ethics ordinance there, but there are critical elements that the board needs to talk about."
After more than two years of Hiltz's repeated urging, school board members have done just that, beginning last week what could be a months-long process of re-examining and beefing up ethics rules that govern their behavior, as well as that of the county's 28,000 public school employees.
The board spent two hours Friday afternoon debating broad guidelines - such as whether the board wants to articulate professional standards for its employees, specify a system for ethics enforcement and formulate an appeals process.
Members also explored such nitty-gritty details as the volume of business a company must do with the school system before school officials are required to disclose stock ownership or any other involvement in them.
Certain school system decision-makers, including principals, assistant superintendents, department directors and school board members, must file annual financial disclosure forms that reveal whether they hold stock or are employed by any companies with which the school system does business.
But Hiltz and board colleague Laura K. Rhodes argued that such forms are meaningless unless the employees filling out those forms know the names of the companies with which the system does business.
Superintendent Charles I. Ecker told board members that he's happy to provide such a list, but questioned whether decision-makers really need to know about every office supply company that sells $25 worth of markers to a school.
"If you own enough shares in a company that you stand to benefit from their dealings with the school system, you're going to know that the school system does business with them," Ecker said. "But we'll give you a list. You just may have to do some weight training before you can lift it."
Board members also discussed one of the most prevalent - but undocumented - ethical quandaries facing educators. Stephen Guthrie, the district's assistant superintendent of administration, said he gets calls "all the time" from teachers asking whether they can tutor students for extra pay.
"It's the most common ethics question we get," Guthrie told the board. "We read them the policy, we give them our perception and we work through it with them. In most cases, the answer is no. If the student is in their class or if there's the chance that student could ever be in their class, they can't tutor them."
A clause in the "conflicts of interest" provision of the school board's current ethics policy prohibits employees from holding "any outside employment relationship that would impair their impartiality or independence of judgment."
But despite such a generality, board members said they wanted those types of rules - from teachers' tutoring restrictions to other practical matters that generate questions among employees - spelled out more clearly.
"The aura surrounding ethics is that everyone shies away from it because of the view that it's tricky or that if you do it wrong, you'll get in trouble," Hiltz said. "I don't think that's a helpful approach. ... I think ethics should be open, it should be helpful and it should encourage participation."
Modeled after a decades-old state ethics commission regulation, the Carroll school board's ethics policy is a patchwork of revisions and amendments that critics say has left gaping holes and that has not kept up with the times.
"It's been modified and amended many times, but it needs a healthy update and it needs a good cleaning," Claire Kwiatkowski, president of the Carroll County Council of PTAs and a member of the Carroll County Board of Education Ethics Panel, said in an interview last week.
Hiltz also complained that "dissection" of the current ethics policy reveals "way too many exceptions under the conflicts-of-interest section for people who contract with or who are under the authority of the school system."
He offered as an example a provision that school officials and employees may accept "gifts of tickets or free admission to attend a professional or intercollegiate sporting event ... if the purpose of such gift or admission is to further the educational mission" of the district.
"That is so sufficiently vague and so flawed," Hiltz said, "that I don't know how you'd determine whether attending a sporting event furthers the education mission of the school system."
Board members also said they would like an annual report on the activities of its ethics panel.
Kwiatkowski said in an interview that she is prohibited from discussing specific matters that have come before the panel, but that the group annually reviews school officials' financial disclosure statements and has considered three to five "issues" a year during the three years she has worked with the group.
"It's not a lot," she said. "But ethics laws are there for when you need them. Things can go along pretty smoothly ... but when you have a problem, you really need to have the law to back you up and the policy to help you figure out what's the ethical thing to do."
The school board also discussed Friday the need to train employees and members of its ethics panel on ethical matters. The five-member panel is made up of representatives from the League of Women Voters, the PTAs Council, the Westminster Ministerial Association, the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce and the Carroll County Bar Association. They serve staggered two-year terms.
The board additionally decided to ask the state ethics commission to update model policies on which most Maryland school boards base their own rules and to ask the Maryland Association of Boards of Education to collect the 24 school boards' ethics policies and suggest revisions that every jurisdiction could adopt.
In the meantime, they directed Ecker to work their suggestions into an ethics policy proposal by the board's May or June meeting.
Regardless of the process of collecting statewide information and consulting with state ethics officials, board President Susan Holt stressed that she did not want the review to drag.
"Let's put this to bed," she said. "Let's not rush it, but yeah, let's rush it."