Is there a conflict of interest when a long-time friend of the superintendent of schools is appointed to the school board?
The Dagger has learned that Ron Browning, a newly appointed member of the Harford County Board of Education, has been a friend of Harford Schools Superintendent Robert M. Tomback since the early 1980s when he and Tomback taught social studies together at a public high school in Baltimore County. Browning said the friendship included social gatherings at Browning’s home and interaction with family over the years, and continued as Tomback climbed the ladder in BCPS and became the Harford County superintendent in 2009.
While there is certainly no law prohibiting a personal friendship between a school board member and a superintendent, the potential for a conflict of interest lies in the school board’s responsibility to employ, evaluate and provide oversight of the superintendent on behalf of the public.
As the Harford County Board of Education handbook explains…
Pursuant to Maryland law, the Board of Education appoints the Superintendent of Schools. This undertaking is one of the major responsibilities of the Board of Education.
Under Maryland law, the Superintendent of Schools, at the time of appointment by the Board of Education, enters into a four-year contract. This contract includes a process for the evaluation of the Superintendent’s performance as well as performance goals. The Board conducts this evaluation.
With Superintendent Tomback two years into a four year contract, Mr. Browning will now participate in at least two year-end evaluations, including the decision whether to award the superintendent a performance bonus of up to 10% of his $190,000 base salary. Browning will also help decide whether or not to renew the superintendent’s contract, and under what terms.
For his part, Browning was forthcoming about the relationship when asked and there’s no reason to doubt his integrity. But such a pre-existing friendship between the superintendent and a school board member might naturally raise concerns, made worse by the school system’s apparent decision to avoid any disclosure that would connect Browning to Tomback.
Following Browning’s July 8 appointment to the school board by Gov. Martin O’Malley, HCPS released a bio of Browning that omitted any mention of his 30 year career in Baltimore County Public Schools, which would have raised questions about whether he and Tomback were acquainted. Instead, the HCPS bio said only that Browning was a “retired teacher” in an unnamed school system:
“Ronald G. Browning is a life-long resident of Maryland with experience in education and business. A retired teacher, he presently owns and operates a bed and breakfast in Havre de Grace. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Baltimore County Community College and a newspaper columnist. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies and History from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a second Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in Geography from Towson University. Mr. Browning also serves as the chair of the Havre de Grace Historical Preservation Commission. Mr. Browning is a resident of Havre de Grace.”
The omission was unusual, since Browning had said publicly that he taught in Baltimore County Public Schools and HCPS included such information in the bio of every other board member with experience in education – Board President Leonard Wheeler is described as a” retired Baltimore City Public School teacher;” Board Member Nancy Reynolds’ many roles are listed as a one-time ”Harford County Public Schools employee;” Board Member Bob Frisch is currently “a social studies teacher in Baltimore County,” and so on.
And when Superintendent Tomback introduced Mr. Browning for the first time at a public swearing-in ceremony for new Board members, he said that Browning was a former teacher, but didn’t mention that he and Browning were also former co-workers who had known each other for decades.
Asked whether the Governor’s office was made aware of the friendship between Browning and Tomback, Pat Foerster, education policy advisor in the Governor’s appointment office, told The Dagger that she learned of the relationship when she asked whether the two knew each other in BCPS. As to whether the friendship was first disclosed by Browning and Tomback, Foerster would only say that in addition to her questions, the relationship was disclosed at another point in the vetting process and that any concerns were addressed to the satisfaction of the Governor’s appointment secretary.
Whether the public will be satisfied is another matter. Rumors of the connection have circulated here on The Dagger, with some commenters questioning whether Browning’s addition to the board was intended to “stack the deck” in Tomback’s favor, as one commenter said, and others saying that it’s not an issue.
Asked for his perspective on the matter, Harford County Councilman Dick Slutzky, who is himself a retired HCPS educator and council liaison to the school board, expressed in an email his hope that Browning will be an asset to the board and suggested a solution that would avoid even the appearance of favoritism related to Tomback’s employment:
“I personally do not know Mr. Browning. I introduced myself to him at his first board of education meeting last Monday. I am hopeful that Mr. Browning’s long experience as an educator in Baltimore County Public Schools will bring insight and expertise to the Harford County Board of Education. I am aware of the current controversy surrounding Mr. Browning’s longtime close personal relationship with Dr. Tomback. I would expect that Mr. Browning will be able to separate his responsibilities to the board of education and the Harford County Public Schools system from any personal influences. I understand the questions about potential conflicts of interest and would suggest that on decisions involving Dr. Tomback’s professional evaluations, compensation, contract negotiations, etc., Mr. Browning might consider recusing himself from those processes and votes.”
Discuss this story with Cindy Mumby and Maynard Edwards live Tuesday morning on WAMD 970 AM at 7:05 a.m. or online at http://khztv.com/wamd/.