For 47 Washington school administrators the spring term ended last week with a three-day conference at a resort in Hunt Valley, Md., paid for partly by the school system and partly by three of the companies that sell it books and films.
After the principals and regional superintendents ate meals the companies paid for, salesmen for the companies spoke for the group.
Late last August, just before the fall term, about 60 D.C. school administrators and 40 teachers participated in another conference at a lakeside hotel in Columbia, Md. It too was financed mostly by the school system, but the bills, for lunch and supper were paid by 12 publishers. Their salesmen, who were invited to come only if they picked up the tab, talked about their products at the meals.
"It gives our people a chance to see what the latest stuff is on the market," said D.C. Superintendent Vincent E. Reed, whose school system spent $3.1 million on books last year. "These [free meals with sales talk attached] don't force anybody to do anything. There's no obligation. I don't see anything wrong with it."
But school officials in Washington's largest suburbs -- Prince George's Montgomery and Fairfax counties -- said they do not allow companies to pay any of the costs of school-sponsored meetings for administrators.
"It would be inappropriate for an employe to accept meals or lodging on board time that could lead to a conflict of interest," Montgomery school Superintendent Edward Andrews said through a spokesman. "If we knew about such practices, we would certainly stop them."
"There's no free lunch, you know," said Niel Carey, a Maryland state education department official who has arranged several state conferences. "If we're ever critical of a company," he said, "I don't want them to be able to come back and say, 'Look, we paid for your conference.' We're just not allowed to do something like that."
Accepting or soliciting gifts from contractors also is forbidden by D.C. government personnel regulations. But the regulations do not apply to employes of the school board, according to Deputy Corporation Counsel James E. Lement, because the board is an independent city agency.
The school board itself has no specific rules on the subject. However, the board has adopted a general standard saying that employes "must at all times maintain a high level of ethical conduct . . . [and] refrain from . . . any official action which would adversely affect the confidence of the public in the integrity of the board of education."
Most of the salesmen involved expressed no concern about the request that they buy lunch for D.C. school administrators, saying it was just part of doing business.
However, one salesman, who asked that his name not be used, said, "I paid for their lunch but I wasn't too happy about it. Sometimes what can you do? I suppose if you don't go along, then you might not do as well as a salesman [who does] . . . I really don't like them leaning on us for a meal. A lot of these people make more than 30,000 bucks a year."
Last weak's three-day meeting for D.C. school administrators was held at Marriott's Hunt Valley Inn, a resort with conference rooms, swimming pool, saunas and tennis courts, set in rolling countryside north of Baltimore.
The conference dealt with career education, which aims to improve student's knowledge about seeking and performing jobs. It focused on the topic, "Reducing Stereotyping [sex, race, handicap] in Career Education," and included all-day training sesions with two consultants.
Essie Page, director of the school system's career education office said it was the fifth year in a row that such a conference has been held at Hunt Valley. Like the previous meetings, she said, this year's session attracted some of the D.C. school's top brass -- four of its six regional superintendent and about 40 of its 166 principals.
"We wanted to get the principals and the regional superintendents," Page said, "because we need them to continue the program. These people are the decision makers, and we need their support. . . . It's part of leadership training."
According to Reed, the D.C. school system planned to spend about $5,000 on the event -- $2,000 from a federal grant for career educational and $3,000 from the regular budget for staff training.
But Page said she knew that $5,000 would not be enough to pay for everything So she said she wrote to about 10 publishers, inviting them to exhibit and talk about their wares in return for a contribution to help with expenses.
The three who came and contributed, she said were BFA Educational Media, a subsidiary of CBS; Nystrom, a division of Carnation Co., and McKnight Publishers of Bloomington, Ill.
BFA and Nystrom each paid for a meal for everyone at the conference and their salespeople got to speak for a half hour or more, Page said. McKnight agreed to pay $75, she said and its salesman spoke for about 15 minutes in the afternoon.
Another firm, Guidance Associates of White Plains, N.Y., donated two hand calculators, Page said, which were given away in a drawing to encourage people to stay to the end of each day's session.
Neither of the salespeople who bought the meals, Linda Thorne of BFA and Sammie Ellis of Noystrom, would say how much they paid for the food. Page said she didn't know because the publishers dealt directly with Hunt Valley Inn.
A spokesman for the hotel would not give the cost either, but said catered lunches averaged about $7.50 a piece. That make the total cost for the group about $375.
"A lot of these people already are using my programs," Ellis said, "and I wanted to help them out. That's part of the business. It's done all the time . . ."
Indeed, 12 publishers paid for the meals at a reading conference for D.C. teachers and administrators last Aug. 27 to 31 at the Cross Keys Inn in Columbia.
According to Mary Harris, director of the school system's right-to-read program who arranged the conference, about 100 people participated in the meeting, including five regional superintendents their deputies, and 33 principals. The sessions, along with follow-up materials on reading methods, cost $14,000, she said. The sessions were paid for by a federal grant, but 10 lunches and dinners during the week were paid for by the publishers.
Harris said there was a similar arrangement with publishers during right-to-read conference in 1978.
"The [publishers] dealt directly with the hotel to pay for the meals," Harris said, "and each was allowed 15 minutes to present their materials. They were very good sessions. It was really part of the training."
Asked about a possible conflict of interest. Harris said, "I don't see that as a problem because there was absolutely no pressure at all -- either way. The book people were just helping us out. They were taking a chance. If they sold something -- fine. If not, that's that."
Ellis said: "It's just a normal promotional expense. The children in the District of Columbia have the right to have their administration have the same services as those in the suburbs."
However, principals in Fairfax, Prince George's and Mongtomery Counties said they paid for there own meals this year at staff training conferences.
Neither Ellis nor any other salesmen interviewed for this article mentioned any other specific examples besides those for D.C., of conferences run by school departments at which publishers paid some of the expenses.
Publishers do pay for booths and sometimes run hospitality suites at the national and state conventions of teachers' and administrators' groups.
In Maryland last summer the publisher set up exhibits at a conference of Principals at Title I (low income) schools, were not charged.
In Virginia about 10 publishers split the cost of drinks and hors d'oeuvres last October at a recption held during a social studies conference sponsored by the state education department.
However, the 10 p.m. party was arranged by the Virginia Council for the Social Studies, a teachers' group that held its own annual meeting in conjunction with the conference at a Fredericksburg hotel. The companies also paid an exhibition fee to the council to put up displays.
"The state can't get involved in anything commercial like that," said Thomas A. Elliott, social studies director for the Virginia education department. "But the professional organizations need the money for their activities, and it happens under their aegis."
One textbook saleswoman said "It's a very fine line," between her firm providing meals for an official school system meeting or one sponsored by a non-official teachers' group.
"We're talking about an expanded businessman's lunch," she said. "and we'd like to have the same people there no matter who's sponsoring it. It saves a lot of legwork when they set it up and we can come and pay for part of it. That's very cost-effective. It's a good opportunity for sales."
It seems like a perfectly normal business trade-off," another salesman said.
"The textbook people are providing a little something to the principals to get some exposure for our products. I can't bother too much about distinctions [of who sponsors a conference]. If a lot of principals or supervisors are together in one place, it's worth my while to be there."
"Sometimes when the companies hear we're having a conference, they rent rooms in the same hotel and invite people up," said one Virginia education department official. "There's nothing we can do about that. But we really don't want to see them take advantage of a platform we build to sell their wares. If somebody wants to sell something outside the fence, OK. But we're not going to invite them in and ask them to pay some of our expenses. It's too easy for that to be viewed as a conflict of interest or as unfair competition."