Schools chief took junket paid by seller of software

Prince George's considers big contract with sponsor

September 25, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The head of the Prince George's County public schools went on an all-expenses-paid, 10-day trip to South Africa in the summer of 2003 sponsored by an education software company that the county is now considering for a major contract.

Prince George's schools CEO Andre J. Hornsby was one of three dozen administrators from around the country, including one other now working in Prince George's, who took the "International Educational Seminar" organized by the National Alliance of Black School Educators, of which Hornsby was president at the time.

The trip, like two others by the alliance to Scotland and South Africa in the past two years, was sponsored by Gateway, a computer company, and by Plato Learning, a Minnesota company that Prince George's is considering for a district-wide purchase of math software.

Hornsby did not comment. A spokeswoman for the district said that when asked about the trip he "did not say specifically" whether he paid his own way.

Meetings, safari

The trip included visits to South African schools, meetings with government officials to discuss possible international exchanges, and a safari on an 80,000-acre reserve.

But the alliance's executive director, Quentin Lawson, and Plato Learning officials said yesterday that the corporate sponsors paid all of Hornsby's and Lawson's costs on the trip. The sponsors also subsidized the cost of the trip for others, lowering the attendance fee, airfare included, to $2,500.

Plato Learning Vice President John C. Super said in an e-mail yesterday that the company sponsored the trips out of "a responsibility to provide a portion of its marketing dollars to support public/private partnerships."

While Plato employees accompanied school officials on the trip, Super said, no company business was conducted.

"There are no sales presentations associated with these trips and participants and our staff and business partners share the powerful experience of visiting with local schools, colleges, policy makers, and ministry officials where they share experiences and learn about each other's successes and challenges," Super said.

Arrived from N.Y.

Hornsby came to Prince George's from New York state in the spring of 2003. District spokeswoman Kelly Alexander said that Hornsby had notified the county school board at the time of his hiring of his plans to go on the trip that July.

"He had committed to this trip and project prior to joining the staff here," she said. "This was a project that he was proud to be involved with, that afforded an opportunity to be involved with an evolving educational system in South Africa that is providing all children with a comprehensive educational system that they didn't have before. It was a rewarding trip for all involved."

School administrators across the country have come under heightened scrutiny in recent years for their acceptance of monetary rewards, free trips or other favors from companies seeking to do business.

Last year, Anne Arundel County Superintendent Eric J. Smith gave to charity a $25,000 educator's award from the McGraw-Hill textbook publisher after concerns arose over his acceptance of the prize when the county was considering a $7 million purchase from the company.

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said it was "troubling" that Hornsby's trip was sponsored by a company that the county is considering for a large contract.

"Whatever the merits of the software, these junkets raise serious questions about how it was chosen - was it the best product, or did they offer the nicest airline seat?" he said. Administrators "should absolutely say no."

Ethics investigation

Hornsby himself has held others on his staff to high standards in their dealings with vendors. In response to Sun questions this month about a school technology director who had helped sell software for Pearson Digital Learning at a recent convention, Hornsby said through a spokeswoman that the employee was being referred to an ethics panel for investigation.

Jim Lupis, executive director of the Public Schools Superintendents Association of Maryland, said yesterday that it was up to individual districts to monitor their administrators' activities. "There are no [state] guidelines," said Lupis.

The chairwoman of the Prince George's County school board did not return a call seeking comment.

The courting of administrators by vendors has only increased under the No Child Left Behind law.

As reported in a Sun series this week, the federal law has put struggling districts under great pressure to improve test scores, while providing them with more federal funding, thereby making them ideal targets for education software companies such as Plato Learning.

Prince George's, a large district with 43 schools deemed "in need of improvement" under the law, has become a particularly lucrative market for software companies, signing contracts worth millions of dollars with several vendors in recent years.

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