School board to keep current financial disclosure threshold

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After surveying area school districts and talking with the State Ethics Commission, Carroll County school officials have changed their minds about increasing the threshold at which they would have to report certain financial holdings.

Changes that were proposed at a school board meeting last month included increasing the value of stock holdings or business interests held by district employees in any company doing business with the system from $2,500 to $10,000 before disclosure would be required.

At the time, school officials said the increase was needed to reflect a changing economy and rising inflation.

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

But Guthrie said last week that school officials decided against changing the district's financial disclosure threshold after speaking with representatives of the State Ethics Commission, which approves local school board ethics policies, and researching the levels set at area school districts.

Guthrie said he found that most districts have thresholds averaging about $1,000.

"Most counties do not have anything close to $10,000," he said.

The disclosure threshold in Anne Arundel and Howard counties' school systems is $1,000, while Harford County requires employees to disclose any stock holding or interest in a company that does business with the system.

"We want to know about any financial interest ... in any entity doing business with the school district," said Pat Spicer, the attorney for Harford's school board.

Guthrie said Carroll school officials also considered that the state's threshold is set at $1,000 or ownership of 3 percent of a business entity.

Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said opposition expressed at last month's school board meeting persuaded him to eliminate the item from the proposed changes.

"There was a lot of objection to changing it," he said.

School board members who were leery of increasing the $2,500 threshold were satisfied that officials had taken the proposal off the table.

"I'm pleased the superintendent's recommendation is to keep the value at $2,500," said board member C. Scott Stone. "It's a reasonable value. It's not inordinately high nor is it so low that the list of stocks and ownership is too long."

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

Board member Thomas G. Hiltz - who had pressed the board for more than two years to consider tightening the policy's guidelines when it took up the issue in 2003 - had requested the survey of area school districts to see what ceilings others have set for their employees.

"I'm delighted," Hiltz said. "I thought we were probably stretching a little far with the $10,000 limit. ... We're at a reasonable level."

While Laura K. Rhodes, the school board's vice president, supported the proposal to increase the threshold, she said yesterday that she agrees with maintaining the $2,500 standard.

"I'm fine with whatever way they want to go with it," she said.

School board members are weighing proposed changes to the district's ethics policy in an effort to clarify some of it requirements.

If the board approves the proposal when it meets next month:

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, as long as the board member publicly discloses the relationship at the time of the vote and the particular matter does not affect that person differently than it would any other person.

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, and school employees would be prohibited from paying the difference should a gift exceed $50. In addition, they would be prohibited from accepting more than $150 worth of such gifts from a source during a calendar year.

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

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

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.

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