After-hours program prompts ethics review in Montgomery County

A popular after-hours fitness program for students has become the target of an ethics probe in Montgomery County public schools, increasing scrutiny of when and how a teacher can charge fees to work with children outside the classroom.

The Healthy Kids Workout program at Somerset Elementary School in Chevy Chase was shut down in the fall after 17 years because of an apparent violation of a school system policy that forbids employees from tutoring their own students in exchange for money and from conducting private tutoring on school property.

But Montgomery County parents are lobbying to save the program, arguing that it’s not hurting anyone and is helping to fight childhood obesity. Parents say they appreciate the teacher’s entrepreneurialism and are willing to pay more for quality services at their school. More than 150 parents signed or sent letters in support of the program.

An ethics panel appointed by the school board considered the issue Wednesday evening. School officials say clear rules are needed.

“We have to have ethics policies in place for any employee who is making money off students,” Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said.

Many school systems across the country have adopted such policies, intended to protect children and families from potential financial pressure or favoritism. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties prohibit teachers from tutoring students from their schools or on school property. Fairfax County teachers, according to school system policy, also cannot “under any circumstances” tutor their own students for private compensation.

Loudoun and Prince William counties do not have formal policies, but officials said teachers are discouraged from working with their own students for extra pay.

It’s common for teachers to conduct private lessons outside of school hours. Some contract with private companies; others work with students from different schools, said Doug Prouty, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the county’s teachers union.

The union hosts an online directory of teachers willing to tutor in a range of subjects (physical education is not included). Users must agree to the conflict-of-interest policy before accessing it.

Somerset parents said they understand the policy’s relevance in academic courses and upper grades, but not in an elementary gym class.

“That’s what happens in bureaucracies,” said Steven Guttentag, whose children attended the program. “They make rules, and they trip over themselves when you have a good, innovative idea like this.”

Richard House, a physical education teacher, ran the program for 17 years before it was flagged by school system staff after a parent recommended House for a county Board of Education distinguished educator award.

“This program went on for years and years, but we didn’t know he was doing it,” said board member Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase).

The conflict-of-interest policy is “in the employee handbook,” she said.

House declined to comment, citing the pending ethics review.

The Healthy Kids Workout was a before- and after-school program in which kids played games such as capture the flag to get their blood pumping around the edges of a long school day. More than 100 children participated in a given year.

For most of the program’s existence, House was paid by the PTA, which operated various after-school programs. But in 2009, the PTA stopped running the programs, and House started charging parents directly.

Cost varied depending on how many days a week students participated and went partly to offset insurance and rental fees. Last spring, participating three mornings a week cost $570 a semester; one morning a week cost less than $200 a semester. House did not turn away any student who couldn’t pay, parents said. He also employed other coaches.

After the program was canceled in the fall, the PTA looked into funding the program again. But after reviewing the regulations, it found it could pay House only $14 an hour for up to 100 hours per semester.

“People pay their nannies more than $14 an hour,” said Morris Panner, a parent with four children at Somerset Elementary. “House is a very good educator.”

Panner argued that giving teachers more flexibility to supplement their incomes might help the school system attract and retain talented people.

“I get the notion that you don’t want teachers turning schools into profit centers,” he said. “But if a teacher makes some extra money doing a program that people love, that’s fantastic.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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