Principals feel new financial disclosure forms are too intrusive

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Baltimore County principals are protesting a new financial disclosure form that is the most detailed of any required in the region, setting up a debate over how much personal information some school officials should have to divulge to the public.

Principals were told last spring that they must fill out a 14-page financial disclosure form that is the same as that required of school board members, the superintendent and other officials who make decisions about purchases.

"We feel it is too intrusive," said Tom Evans, principal of Eastern Technical High School.

The principals are being asked to disclose how much their house cost, from whom they bought it, their stock holdings and rental properties, as well as detailed information about their spouse's finances and any gifts received worth more than $20.

The level of specificity is greater than that required of members of Congress, said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause.

The forms were due April 30, and failure to file could result in a principal being found insubordinate, which is grounds for firing. About half the principals have filed the forms, according to school board president Lawrence Schmidt. Because principals have protested, Schmidt asked Superintendent Joe A. Hairston to put off disciplinary action against any who did not complete the form.

In the meantime, the school board is reconsidering the policy, Schmidt said, and the issue could be brought to a vote as early as next month. Schmidt said he hasn't made up his mind whether the long form should be required, adding that principals did not complain when the policy first came before the school board last fall.

Boyle said principals could have conflicts of interest and that some questions on the form are appropriate. However, she said the level of detail is more than Common Cause would have expected for an administrator who does not make purchasing decisions.

"These questions should be based on bringing to light potential conflicts of interest. This shouldn't be an exercise in voyeurism," Boyle said. "I think it is understandable why some of the principals are squirming."

Over the past decade, purchasing decisions have been taken out of the hands of principals and centralized with the superintendent and the school board, said John Desmone, executive director of the Council for Administrative and Supervisory Employees, the bargaining unit for county principals.

"If I want toilet paper, I order it from the central warehouse. If I buy books, I buy from a list," said Desmone, describing how a principal gets the goods needed to run a school.

That process means fewer chances for ethics violations for principals, he said. So why, he asked, is it necessary for principals to disclose the same amount of information as the superintendent and the school board members, who vote on millions of dollars in contracts every year?

A state ethics law that took effect in 2010 changed the reporting requirements for county governments, municipalities and local school boards. As a result, county school systems are updating their financial disclosure requirements, according to Michael Lord, executive director of the state Ethics Commission. School boards decide whether other employees come under the new law.

Lord said Anne Arundel County has no financial disclosure requirement for its principals, while Howard, Harford and Carroll counties require principals to file a short form that is different from the one school board members must fill out.

In Baltimore, where city principals have autonomy over their budgets and handle purchases, the required financial disclosure forms are not as extensive as those in Baltimore County. The form city principals must fill out requires disclosure of gifts of more than $25 and any interest in companies and real estate holdings that do business with the school system.

Elected officials in Baltimore County, including the county executive and County Council members, file forms that are nearly identical to those the school board, superintendent and principals file. The forms are modeled after a state form.

The standard for school officials, such as board of education members who make decisions about contracts, should be different, Boyle said. For instance, she said, the public would want to know if a school board member who was voting on whether to buy a textbook owned stock in textbook companies.

Evans said the Baltimore County principals were surprised by the new form because they didn't know it would be so detailed.

"All we were looking for is the possibility of being involved in writing this form," Evans said. "It was given to us cold without any involvement."

Evans said principals have filled out short disclosure forms for years without any objections, but these forms go too far.

The form also asks principals to list whether they have an interest in any company or nonprofit that does business with the school system, according to Evans. But the system does not provide a list, so it would be difficult for the principals to disclose that information.

Principals, he said, are also concerned that parents might look at the forms to get personal information about them that is not relevant to their jobs.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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