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School board reviews plan for ethics code

The Carroll County school board moved one step closer last night toward adopting a more stringent ethics code for its five members and for the county's 2,800 public school employees.

After a preliminary look at the proposed guidelines, board members said they expect to vote next month on the policy, which would require members of the board's ethics panel to complete state-approved training and submit to the school board annual reports of its actions -something the five-member group has not done.

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The code also would require school system decision-makers to declare gifts worth more than $50 received from people under the school district's authority and disclose holdings of 10 percent or more of any business under the system's authority or with which the district is negotiating a contract worth at least $3,500.

School officials subject to the reporting requirement would include school board members, the superintendent and assistant superintendents, all department directors, the comptroller, budget supervisor, school principals and any employees in charge of department finances or designated as buyers.

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The changes, school board members say, would beef up ethics rules that govern their behavior and that of the county's public school work force and are intended to increase community confidence in the school system.

"The board ... recognizes that the success of a public school system is dependent upon citizens having the highest trust in their public officials and employees," the proposed policy reads. "Accordingly, citizens have a right to be assured that the impartiality and independent judgment of the public officials and employees will be maintained.

"Confidence and trust are eroded when the conduct of public business is subject to improper influence and/or the appearance of improper influence," the proposed policy statement continues.

"To guard against improper influence, the Board of Education of Carroll County requires certain school officials to disclose their financial affairs and sets minimum ethical standards of conduct for certain school system employees," the statement says.

Board members began re-examining the board's ethics policy in March after more than two years of repeated urging from board member Thomas G. Hiltz.

Concerned with what he perceived as gaps and loopholes in the board's ethics rules, Hiltz asked his colleagues to consider tightening the guidelines, particularly regarding gifts and conflicts of interest.

Board members devoted two hours in March to debating broad ethics guidelines, such as whether they wanted to articulate professional standards for school employees, specify a system for ethics enforcement and formulate an appeals process.

They also explored such details as the volume of business a company must do with the school system before school officials are required to disclose stock ownership or other involvement in them.

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"Some items we thought needed to go into an ethics policy ... didn't need to because it is an accepted mode," board President Susan G. Holt said last night.

Specifically, she said, the board shied away from incorporating professional standards for employees because codes of professional conduct are in place for many employee groups.

The new policy also would take up what Assistant Superintendent Stephen Guthrie has called "the most common ethics question we get" - whether teachers can tutor students for extra pay.

"In most cases," Guthrie told board members at their March work session, "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."

The proposed policy spells out that employees cannot accept "an honoraria or pay for teaching, consulting, writing or any other work outside of their employment earned on [school system] time." It also dictates that employees inform the superintendent when they are "involved in teaching, consulting or writing for pay outside of their employment with the Board of Education."

Before next month's board meeting - at 5 p.m. Aug. 13 - Hiltz and board member C. Scott Stone say they will further revise the proposed ethics policy, and review ethics policies from other school boards around the state.


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