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Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2007 | Ethics is a touchy word, one that puts people on the defensive. When Joan McRobbie joined San Diego Unified schools, charged with leading its first-ever Ethics Office, a principal told her, “I hope I never have to see you.”

Too often, school staffers see the Ethics Office as a place to steer clear of, “the Ethics Police” who catch and castigate wrongdoers, McRobbie said. San Diego Unified hired McRobbie in 2006 to oversee its new Ethics Office, a reform recommended by school district auditors. The new office came in tandem with the Fraud Hotline, an employee complaint line separate from the Ethics Office, but often associated with it.

McRobbie insists that there’s much more to the Ethics Office than punishing offenders ferreted out by the Fraud Hotline. She wants her office to be a resource — a place for teachers, principals, counselors and staff to call, and consult on their daily tribulations. She defines ethics broadly, as a set of tools useful in everyday school dilemmas. Gray areas abound for principals weighing abundant student needs against limited funds, with vocal parents pulling schools one way and the next. Gifted students, English learners and other groups vie for scant dollars.

“Which do you choose? How do you decide?” McRobbie asked. Her office hosts ethics workshops, aimed at those quandaries, and provides guidelines on avoiding ethical snares. “We want to give them tools to work through these dilemmas. We’re a helpline.”

One year after San Diego Unified rolled out its Ethics Office on auditors’ advice, the program is still struggling to define itself. McRobbie no longer finds “snide remarks” scribbled on the Ethics Code posted in school offices. But many employees in the vast school district remain uncertain about what her office does.

Some are wary of the year-old Fraud Hotline, outsourced to an Atlanta company that refers anonymous complaints back to audits and investigations, a once-obscure district office now flooded with tips. Since October 2006, the hotline has received 211 calls, and finished investigating 123 issues. The rest are underway. A seasoned auditor, Carmina Duran, was hired in March to track down allegations.

“People might not have even known we existed. I wasn’t one to advertise,” said Andrea Niehaus, the district’s director of audits and investigations. “This gives us more exposure.”

Only 3 percent of hotline calls led to an employee being fired or disciplined. Twenty-four percent were solved in some other way. For instance, when a caller complained that staff didn’t know about the hotline, the Ethics Office put up more posters in schools, Duran said. Twenty-three percent were dubbed false allegations, 28 percent of accused employees were cleared of wrongdoing, and 19 percent of the tips had too little information to investigate.

None have led to criminal charges. But a non-hotline call, made directly to Niehau’s office, spurred the prosecution of Jesse Macias, a school construction supervisor accused of embezzling $23,000 collected for recycling metal ramps.

“We’re not just the enforcers,” Niehaus said. “We go out and educate, too. We’re more a deterrent.”

The push to instill ethics follows local and national scandals ranging from Enron to former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. San Diego, dubbed “Enron-by-the-Sea” for its reckless financing, faces pressure to clean up its act, McRobbie said. In response, the city started its own whistleblower hotline, operated by the same Atlanta company, within the mayor’s office.

Nor is scandal foreign to San Diego Unified. The school board forced out Chief Administrative Officer Jose Betancourt in August after he failed to disclose side jobs, revealed in a federal conflict-of-interest probe.

Short of scandal, McRobbie said the school district has suffered from instability: Tuesday, the district is due to select its third superintendent in three years. That turbulence has undercut trust, communication and professionalism, she said. Talking frankly about ethics — and giving confused staff a place to turn — is her first step toward building an ethical culture. A similar office is at work at Los Angeles Unified.

McRobbie’s efforts parallel a burgeoning character education movement in San Diego schools, spearheaded by Area Superintendent Rich Cansdale, who oversees schools in City Heights and Tierrasanta. Parent volunteer Dana Brown speaks excitedly about future school programs on respect, integrity and cooperation, about banners and posters touting tolerance. Thus far, it’s a dream — but Brown is pushing for the reality.

“The shorthand term for culture is how we do things around here,” McRobbie said. “When you have a culture where people feel free to bring up issues before they become problems, the norms change.”

Not everyone is convinced. Some teachers complain that they haven’t seen penalties when school leaders misstep. Camille Zombro, president of the teachers’ union, said the Fraud Hotline gives aggrieved teachers “a place to turn.” But most calls are handled quietly, and the fallout is never announced, leaving teachers unsure of the hotline’s impact.

Zombro cited the recent dustup over the merger of the private Harborside School and public Washington Elementary as an example, asking who was held responsible for the scant communication between parents, teachers and the district during the transition.

“We haven’t heard much from it,” Zombro said. “People don’t see the big changes from the calls they made. … Whether we have an Ethics Office isn’t relevant to me. I’m looking at the actions the district is taking.”

Gauging the hotline’s effect is difficult. Callers to the Fraud Hotline can check back to find out if an investigation is complete, and if anything was found, Duran said. But callers don’t learn whether an employee was disciplined. Nor should they, said Larry Hinman, director of the Values Institute at the University of San Diego.

“Unless the complainant is willing to make a public charge, I don’t think they have a right to the information,” Hinman said. “You want to protect individuals’ privacy, and their reputation against unwarranted charges.”

Yet staffers complain that false charges from the Fraud Hotline can still tar their reputations. When Duran or another auditor investigates a charge, she may interview staffers in an office, prying into misdeeds. Accused employees always have an opportunity to review and respond to findings, Duran said, unless the accusation is utterly baseless. But since the investigation’s results aren’t revealed to staff, suspicions linger even if an employee is ultimately cleared, said Jeannie Steeg, executive director of the Administrators Association.

“I question the process,” Steeg said. “Often, the person being accused of whatever it might be is the last person to be contacted. Months go by and it raises lots of questions and increases anxiety.”

But when asked if contacting supervisors first would silence whistleblowers, Steeg reconsidered.

“Maybe there is no easy answer,” she said.

Speaking about the Ethics Office, McRobbie echoes Steeg. Her office isn’t “a black box with a crank, where you put the dilemma in and the solution comes out,” she said. Instead, it’s a place to bring concerns that might get lost in the day-to-day rush of running schools.

She offered the example of school lunches. Chula Vista schools were slighted this summer for doling out a plain cheese sandwich to students whose parents fell behind on their lunch bills. Giving kids the blander meal would induce their parents to pay. Unlike Chula Vista, San Diego Unified doesn’t penalize the kids, McRobbie said.

“They’d rather carry the financial deficit for a while than embarrass kids whose parents haven’t paid,” she said. “Those actions and decisions color the climate, the culture. … We’re always talking about the business at hand. We don’t step back and have these conversations.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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