Board's head defends actions of Prince George's schools' CEO

Dealings with education vendors probed by panel and prosecutor

October 20, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Trying to bring "closure" to the issues surrounding Prince George's County schools chief Andre J. Hornsby's relations with education vendors, the chairwoman of the county school board sent elected officials a statement yesterday defending the system against allegations of impropriety.

In what she called a "statement of facts," board Chairwoman Beatrice P. Tignor offered a point-by-point response to some of the questions raised about Hornsby, defending the board's decision to hire him and asserting the legitimacy of the county's spending on education software.

The Sun reported last week that Hornsby, 51, oversaw a $1 million instructional software purchase in June from LeapFrog SchoolHouse without disclosing that he lives with a 26-year-old saleswoman employed by the company. The Sun also reported that he accepted a 10-day trip to South Africa last year with the National Alliance of Black School Educators that was paid for by Plato Learning, which is pursuing a major districtwide contract for algebra software in the county.

The Maryland state prosecutor's office, which investigates allegations of public corruption, has started an inquiry into Hornsby's dealings with vendors, and state lawmakers have requested a legislative audit into the system's vendor spending.

The school board has initiated an inquiry by the system's five-person ethics panel. Tignor said in her statement yesterday that the board is awaiting a ruling by the panel and will make the ruling public when the time comes.

But, even in advance of the ethics panel completing its inquiry, Tignor said she hoped her statement would allay concerns surrounding Hornsby, who was hired by the school board for the $250,000 chief executive's job in the spring of last year.

"I believe that this should bring closure to these issues," she wrote the officials.

In the statement, which Tignor said was based on information she had "personally researched ... with the assistance of school system staff," Tignor acknowledged that Hornsby oversaw the purchase of $1.3 million in equipment from LeapFrog during the past year - even more than had been previously stated by the system. But, she told officials, the sale was made through a LeapFrog saleswoman other than Sienna Owens, the saleswoman with whom Hornsby lives.

Hornsby did not need to disclose his relationship with Owens on his annual ethics disclosure form, Tignor told officials, because Owens did not work for LeapFrog at the time the form was signed in January. In addition, Tignor stated, the system was buying software from LeapFrog before Hornsby came on the scene - about $234,000 in purchases in the two years before his arrival, she said.

The same went for Plato, Tignor said. The system has spent nearly $200,000 on Plato software in the decade or so before Hornsby's arrival, while the county has spent only $31,000 on Plato since Hornsby took office, she said. Her statement did not address the system's consideration of a districtwide purchase of Plato algebra software, which is now being tried out at two high schools.

As for the trip to South Africa, Tignor wrote that Hornsby had told the board at the time of his hiring that he "planned to visit South Africa as part of the mission" of the black educator alliance, of which he was president at the time.

Tignor also addressed questions that arose about Hornsby's dealings with vendors when he was superintendent in Yonkers, N.Y., between 1998 and 2000. The Yonkers inspector general issued a report in 2000 criticizing Hornsby's acceptance of a $2,200 trip to a golf tournament from the Xerox Corp. shortly after he awarded it a $4.3 million contract.

Tignor told officials that the school board led a "stellar" search for a new CEO and that Hornsby's background check came back "squeaky clean."

Several elected officials who received the e-mail last night questioned Tignor's decision to issue a defense of Hornsby before the board's ethics panel had completed its inquiry.

This was also the view of Robert J. Callahan, a former member of the school board, who said the defense was a sign of the lack of independence on the part of the current board, which is appointed by the governor and county executive. An appointed board was installed by state law in 2002 after the previous elected board came under fire during the tenure of Hornsby's predecessor, Iris Metts.

"There's a lack of checks and balances with the current board," Callahan said.

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