Official of city schools is fired

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The chief operating officer of the Baltimore school system was fired yesterday as school officials continued to investigate accusations of misconduct, including an alleged abortive plan to use system funds for a fishing junket.

Eric T. Letsinger, who has been an ally of Mayor Martin O'Malley, oversaw more than 1,000 employees in the school system's police, food services, transportation, and building maintenance and construction departments since May 2005. He came under scrutiny after chartering a boat to take about 10 school system and city employees on a fishing trip May 19.

Letsinger, 38, said last night that he was "mystified" by yesterday's action, but he will accept it because "I remain committed to assuring that the public has trust in the system's leadership."

Last week, Letsinger said the fishing trip was originally planned as a staff retreat that would have been billed to the school system. He said he footed the $1,600 bill for the boat and other expenses after it turned into a day of recreation. All the participants took the time as vacation, he added.

But questions remained about whether Letsinger or someone on his staff tried to pay for the trip with school system dollars. On the day of the trip, while the boat was out on the Chesapeake Bay, a disgruntled former school system employee went on WOLB-AM radio and alleged that the system had cut a check for the trip.

A central question in the investigation is whether Letsinger took back the check and paid for the trip himself only after the allegations were made public.

In addition, Letsinger was named in many of the nine allegations against senior school system staff submitted anonymously last week in a letter to O'Malley, school board members and the media. The letter accused Letsinger and other top officials of drinking alcohol in Letsinger's office, an allegation he vehemently denied in an interview last week.

School system spokeswoman Edie House said yesterday that she could not confirm whether the drinking allegation was substantiated because the issue is a personnel matter protected by privacy regulations.

After the disclosure of the fishing trip and the allegations outlined in the letter, schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland announced she was launching an investigation. She said the system has worked hard to regain the public trust after a financial collapse two years ago and will not jeopardize its credibility.

Letsinger was placed on paid administrative leave last week pending the outcome of an internal school system investigation. Late Tuesday, the school board met behind closed doors for 2 1/2 hours to discuss his case. Leaving system headquarters at the end of the meeting, board Chairman Brian D. Morris said no action had been taken. Letsinger was escorted out of the building through a back entrance to avoid reporters.

Yesterday, Copeland issued a statement saying Letsinger "will be vacating his position" and will "no longer be employed ... effective immediately" as a result of an investigation of misconduct. The statement said the details of the investigation would not be released, as is customary in personnel matters.

House said no disciplinary action has been taken against other employees, but the investigation is not over. "We hope to wrap it up soon," House said. "However, like any investigation, there are a few areas we still need to look into."

Letsinger has portrayed himself as an agent of change who made enemies within the school system because he held people accountable. "The school system needs people willing to make unpopular decisions to restore accountability and performance within the system," he said last night. "It was an honor to be one of those people, and I hope others will heed the call. Our children deserve it."

He said he is "tremendously proud of the accomplishments we've made ... over the last 12 months."

In his year in the city schools, Letsinger oversaw a huge process to identify several city schools for closure and consolidation amid declining enrollment and deteriorating building conditions. He hired several other former city employees and implemented variations of Baltimore's CitiStat program to track school repairs and construction projects.

He negotiated a deal with energy savings companies that he said will pay for itself while providing schools with an estimated $25 million worth of new heating, lighting and other energy-efficient upgrades. He was planning major changes in the food that school cafeterias serve.

David Lever, executive director of the state's school construction program, said Letsinger's management brought "substantial improvement" to the operation of city school buildings. Under Letsinger's leadership, Lever said, stalled construction projects moved forward, environmental safety in schools improved, and the system began a much-needed program to maintain building parts, such as heaters and roofs.

"All of that was very encouraging," Lever said. "Our hope is that momentum will not be lost."

George A. Nilson, who was working with Letsinger on the changes in food services, said Letsinger was "interested in how to get things done, and how to overcome obstacles to getting things done."

"Those kinds of people are often hard to find in government," said Nilson, president of the board of the charter school Midtown Academy. "When you find them, I think you should treasure them. I'm just saddened by the outcome without knowing any of the particulars that caused the outcome."

Before coming to the school system, Letsinger served as a deputy housing commissioner in the city. He was part of a group of young City Hall staffers with degrees from the country's most elite universities who came to the school system to shake things up, despite a lack of experience in education. That left many veterans of the system feeling frustrated and alienated.

A Montgomery County resident, Letsinger holds an undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and a master's in business from Yale. Earlier in his career, he worked as a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. He often said he wanted to use private-sector practices to make the school system more efficient.

While charter boat trips are common in the corporate world, O'Malley said last week that "some things that may seem acceptable in the private sector are completely unacceptable in government."

Yesterday, O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said the mayor supports the school system's decision and is pleased that the action was swift. "This cannot be tolerated," Guillory said.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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