Amprey trips paid for by EAI

October 27, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

Education Alternatives Inc. paid $5,700 to send a city contingent led by Superintendent Walter G. Amprey to Hartford, Conn., and to send him to Napa Valley, Calif., to tout Baltimore's school-privatization experiment.

The trips, reported by Dr. Amprey in a financial disclosure statement, fueled criticism of him and the experiment he has proclaimed a success at conferences, at a U.S. Senate hearing and at meetings of educators and local lawmakers outside Baltimore. EAI, a for-profit Minnesota company, began managing nine "Tesseract" schools here in 1992 and has a more limited role at three others.

In the statement, Dr. Amprey's first since taking the helm in 1991, he reported that EAI bore the $4,600 cost of a May 4 Hartford trip, including a charter flight. He also disclosed an EAI-financed, $1,100 trip to Napa Valley, July 14 to July 18, 1993.

Dr. Amprey, his wife and three aides went to Hartford at the invitation of its City Council, he has said. At the time, EAI was negotiating a contract to run Hartford schools -- a prospect that ignited a battle with 850,000-member American Federation of Teachers union.

After the trip, Dr. Amprey said he went to voice support for EAI and to counter what he described as a campaign of "distortions and lies" by unionized teachers. Hartford's school board voted this month to give EAI control of the district.

The California trip came at the invitation of EAI for a company-sponsored conference, a school spokesman said yesterday.

Detractors said Dr. Amprey, charged with overseeing a company that holds more than $180 million worth of city contracts, has abandoned his oversight role.

"I think it raises a lot of ethical questions, and it shows very clearly that Dr. Amprey has been a cheerleader for EAI not only in Baltimore, but around the country," said Linda Prudente, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Teachers Union, a persistent EAI critic. "And in view of that, you wonder how objective he can be in terms of Baltimore's relationship with EAI."

"The problem is that somebody we're supposed to be holding accountable would pay the expenses and he would accept their paying," said Carl Stokes, the 2nd District Democrat who heads the City Council's Education and Human Resources Committee.

But Nat Harrington, school system spokesman, said, "There is no conflict between him advocating for the success of a program implemented here and him being able to give proper oversight. . . . He's still holding [EAI] accountable for every single aspect of the contract and working with them to make sure it is implemented as envisioned."

Lory Sutton, an EAI spokeswoman, also defended the trips. "Any speaking he does for us, it's within his discretion. This is a topic that is of interest broadly in America."

Dr. Amprey said three weeks ago that he had yet to file the annual financial disclosures -- detailing sources of income, property ownership and potential conflicts of interest -- because he had no idea he was required to do so until The Sun inquired about the statements.

In his disclosure statement, Dr. Amprey also reported that three relatives work for the school system: his wife, Freda J. Amprey, director of Employee Assistance and Wellness; his stepson and a daughter.

Dr. Amprey's hiring of Freda Brown on Feb. 8, 1993, before he married her, has drawn criticism from the teachers union and, privately, from many school employees. Critics say the superintendent's wife should not head the Employee Assistance Program because employees would be reluctant to discuss workplace concerns out of fear that she would tell her spouse.

Her position, which pays $65,014 a year, was created when she took the job, and four to six candidates competed for the slot, Mr. Harrington said. Before the superintendent created the position, school system employee assistance cases were handled by a citywide office whose director now makes $57,700.

Mr. Harrington said the superintendent's wife does no counseling herself, adding that strict confidentiality laws prohibit counselors from discussing any cases.

Dr. Amprey also disclosed that the school system hired Freda Amprey's son, Andre Brown, as a $14,231-a-year custodial worker on Jan. 11, 1993. The superintendent's daughter, Kimberly Amprey, began Aug. 31, 1994, as a city teacher, making $23,509. She and Dr. Amprey's other daughter Kelly had worked the past two summers as interns in the school system, Mr. Harrington said.

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