School board proposes more ethics policy changes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Carroll County school board added more proposed changes to its ethics policy yesterday, and members said they expect to take a final vote on the revised document next month.

The policy would require board members and employees to submit more-detailed disclosures of gifts and private business holdings than they have filed in the past.

The policy would also include new requirements for the school board's five-member ethics panel. Its members would have to complete state-approved training and submit annual reports on their activities, neither of which they've had to do before.

"My overall impression is that this ethics ordinance would be much stronger than the ethics ordinance we have in place," said board member Thomas G. Hiltz.

Ethics has been a hot topic locally for two years. During that time, both the county ethics commission and state prosecutor investigated alleged ethics violations by Carroll County Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.

As those investigations continued to swirl, Gouge and her fellow commissioners disbanded the county's old ethics panel and appointed a task force to rewrite the county's ethic code.

In June, the state prosecutor cleared Gouge of criminal wrongdoing. A few weeks later, the commissioners approved the rewritten code and appointed a new six-member ethics commission.

Tighter rules

The school board has not faced such tests of its ethics policy. But board members began considering changes to the system's ethics code in March after two years of urging by Hiltz, who said he wanted to eliminate loopholes he had noticed in the policy.

Under the policy, school officials and employees would not be allowed to accept gifts from companies or individuals doing business with the school system, unless granted special permission by the ethics panel.

Officials and employees would also need ethics panel approval to accept travel, lodging or entertainment expenses connected to conferences or speaking engagements or to accept tickets to sporting events.

School officials - principals and higher-ups - would have to disclose any stock or business ownership interest of $2,500 or more. Employees would also have to disclose any outside employment by companies that do business with the school system. They would not be able to accept gifts worth more than $50.

The new policy would also limit employees' rights to perform educational work, such as tutoring.

The policy says 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."

Teachers would not be allowed to tutor students who are in their classes or could one day be in their classes.

The policy would give the school board's ethics panel the power to have an attorney investigate alleged ethics violations. The panel would then determine an employee's guilt or innocence.

The policy would not allow the panel to punish employees directly, but would allow the panel to recommend disciplinary actions to the superintendent.

Urged to seek counsel

The new ethics policy would encourage employees to seek guidance from the ethics panel when they face ethics dilemmas.

"Employees acting in accordance with an ethics panel advisory opinion, with full disclosure of relevant information, will not be subject to disciplinary action if that opinion is later found to be in violation of this ethics policy," the proposed document reads.

The board will accept public comment on the revised ethics policy for the next 30 days before voting on a final version.

The new policy would go into effect Jan. 1.

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