Hornsby's connection to N.Y. firm scrutinized

Prince George's official's vendor relations probed

October 30, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

When Andre J. Hornsby was named schools CEO in Prince George's County last year, it created an opportunity for James Grosso. Grosso was assistant superintendent for operations in the Yonkers, N.Y., schools when Hornsby led that system from 1998 to 2000.

After learning that Hornsby had been hired in Prince George's, Grosso said, he contacted him to offer the services of his New York project managing firm, Facility Planners Group. In recent months, he said, he has done about $500,000 in work, with more in the pipeline.

Grosso, who has opened a six-person office in Upper Marlboro to handle the Prince George's jobs, said last week that his firm won the work because of its experience and price. "I'd say that [the Yonkers connection] has absolutely nothing to do with anything," he said.

But the link between Facility Planners and the Prince George's CEO fits a pattern in Hornsby's vendor dealings, some of which are now under investigation by the state prosecutor's office. In several cases, Hornsby's decisions on large purchases - and his choices for important hires - have at least appeared to be influenced partly by his ties outside the school district.

These outside influences include Hornsby's personal life, his connections from previous jobs in other states, and his interactions with education vendors in his capacity as a leader of the National Alliance of Black School Educators.

Besides inviting scrutiny of Hornsby, who has declined repeated requests for interviews, the questions sprouting around the county's dealings with vendors have also brought attention to the broad discretion Hornsby has in spending money.

As head of the state's second-largest school system - and the 18th-largest in the country - Hornsby oversees an operating budget of $1.3 billion and a capital improvement budget of more than $300 million.

Hornsby and his staff are able to dole out much of this money with relatively little scrutiny. Maryland's 24 school districts set their own procurement policies, even though the largest of the districts have budgets exceeding those of many state agencies.

This leaves it up to the system's appointed school board to monitor officials' spending. However, many large purchases made without actual contracts, for things like textbooks and software, don't require board votes. And, those contracts that do require votes are often approved with little discussion.

Prince George's budget director Thomas Himler said the county government sometimes wishes it had more input in school spending, beyond approving the system's overall annual budgets.

`We have no real say'

"We have no real say over the contracts they enter into," he said. "It probably would be nice, since it's a lot of money, [if] there would be a mechanism for some oversight, or at least for some contracts over a certain threshold."

In the case of Facility Planners, the board didn't require a formal bidding process because, Grosso said, the contracts count as "professional services," not actual construction work.

Grosso said his firm has done two jobs in the county worth about $500,000 combined, to oversee air-conditioner installations and a building addition. (Earlier this month, the firm won another contract, worth $450,000, to oversee the construction of a new Bowie elementary school, school board records show.)

Grosso said he started receiving requests for proposals from the county after he sent a letter last year offering his services to Hornsby and about a half-dozen other superintendents he has known over the years in New York.

Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's Democrat and longtime critic of the school board, questioned Hornsby's motivations in awarding contracts to Grosso's firm.

"I have an issue with bringing someone down from New York when we have a lot of bidders here in Prince George's," Hubbard said. "You can't just be taking this money and start [awarding] it to people he knew from past history."

Frustrated by what they see as the board's lax oversight, several Prince George's lawmakers, including Sen. Ulysses Currie, the chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, are calling for a legislative audit of all vendor spending since Hornsby took office. Lawmakers are also calling for tougher disclosure requirements for school superintendents, to guard against conflicts of interest between administrators and vendors.

Board chairwoman Beatrice P. Tignor didn't return phone calls from The Sun. But in a statement released last week, she said the board will "remain steadfast in its attempt to keep our system financially solvent."

Hornsby's dealings with education vendors are under investigation by the state prosecutor's office and by the school system's ethics panel.

The Sun reported that last year Hornsby accepted a 10-day trip to South Africa with the black educator alliance that was paid for by Plato Learning, a software company now pursuing a major contract in Prince George's.

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