Carroll school board debates changes in its ethics policy


Carroll County school board members are weighing proposed modifications to the district's ethics policy in an effort to address calls for clarification of several requirements -- including those regarding gifts and stock holdings.

The proposed changes are needed to clarify the ethics policy's intentions and make its demands more practical, school officials said.

"Administrators expressed feedback that ... there might be some things that would put them out of compliance with the ethics policy without their intention," said Stephen Guthrie, assistant superintendent of administration.

For example, Guthrie said, some administrators expressed concern about having to get permission from the board's five-member ethics panel before accepting lunch during a speaking engagement.

The panel is appointed by the school board to two-year terms.

By making these changes to the ethics policy -- which the board most recently revised in September 2003 and became effective Jan. 1 last year -- school officials are hoping to clarify its intentions, Guthrie said.

It is not known when the board will vote on the proposal, but if the changes are approved:

It would not be a conflict of interest for a board member with a spouse, parent, brother, sister, children or dependent employed by the school system to cast a vote on matters that are part of the board member's normal course of duty, so long as the board member publicly discloses the relationship at the time of the vote.

School employees would no longer need permission from the ethics panel before accepting "reasonable expenses for food, travel, lodging, and scheduled entertainment of the school official or employee for a meeting that is given in return for participation in a panel or speaking engagement at the meeting; or gifts of tickets or free admission to attend a professional or intercollegiate sporting event." Instead, a $50 limit on such gifts would be established.

School employees would have to report the value of stock or interest in a company that does business with the district only after that value exceeds "$10,000 or 10 percent or more of the value of the company." The policy currently requires disclosure when a school employee holds $2,500 worth of stock in such a company.

The ethics policy applies to all school system employees, but only certain officials are required to file financial disclosures. Those officials include board members, the superintendent and assistant superintendents, directors, principals and members of the ethics panel.

Increasing the value of stock holdings from $2,500 to $10,000 as the threshold before requiring disclosure is necessary to reflect a changing economy and rising inflation, Guthrie said.

"The feedback was that $2,500 is really a low value," he said. "You could change value several times over a year and not know it and be out of compliance inadvertently."

Guthrie said a person holding $10,000 or more worth of stock in a company would likely be tracking that investment more closely. He also said a holding of that value would make a potential conflict of interest more likely.

Laura K. Rhodes, the board's vice president, supports a higher figure on disclosure of stock holdings.

The $2,500 stock holding figure is "not reflective of where we are economically," she said. "It needs to be more reflective of where people are financially."

But at least two board members do not support raising the ceiling to $10,000. Thomas G. Hiltz and C. Scott Stone, former president of the five-member school board -- both of whom helped draft the ethics policy that was approved in 2003 -- said they oppose the change.

"The bar should be set low enough where we preclude the potential for conflict of interest, not where we minimize the number of companies that we have to disclose," Hiltz said. "I want to be sure that $10,000 is the right bar."

But he wonders why just a little more than a year ago, the $2,500 ceiling was considered acceptable for the board to approve.

Stone stressed that affected employees are required only to list the holdings, not detail the number of shares held or the actual value.

He said the bottom line is preserving the public's trust in the school system. "This has nothing to do with doubting the integrity or ethical behavior of any employee," he said.

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