An ethical leap?

December 23, 2004

IT'S A SAD commentary on the weakness of the Prince George's County school board that a private company has shown itself much more proactive than board members in rooting out possible improprieties in its sales to the school system.

The educational software firm - California-based LeapFrog SchoolHouse - last week announced the departures of its president and two saleswomen, one of whom lives with Prince George's schools chief Andre J. Hornsby. That followed the launch of state and federal investigations into Mr. Hornsby's possible conflict of interest in a no-bid $1 million LeapFrog contract with the school system.

LeapFrog didn't detail why its president resigned, other than to say its own investigation into the contract found ethical violations. Mr. Hornsby and his girlfriend have declared themselves innocent of any misdealing. A county ethics panel already has cleared the schools CEO - though, incredibly, it did so without even interviewing him.

But in response to a stream of disturbing revelations over the last three months by Sun reporter Alec MacGillis about the LeapFrog contract - and about alleged conflicts of interest at Mr. Hornsby's past jobs in New York City and Yonkers, N.Y. - the Prince George's board has seemed more interested in defending its CEO than ferreting out the truth.

At least the announcement last week of the LeapFrog shakeup appeared to shame into action the Prince George's board, which quickly hired an independent investigator to examine Mr. Hornsby's dealings with LeapFrog and another software vendor, Plato Learning.

The board, however, erred in not putting Mr. Hornsby on administrative leave during the various investigations, more than likely a distraction for him and other Prince George's school officials from their critical responsibilities.

Said Prince George's board Chairwoman Beatrice P. Tignor, once again sounding more as if she were giving Mr. Hornsby a rousing endorsement than holding him accountable: "He still is the CEO. He is the CEO today, he is the CEO tonight, and he will be the CEO tomorrow."

That is the real tragedy here.

The Prince George's school system - the 18th-largest in the country, with a $1.3 billion budget - faces tremendous challenges in raising the academic performance of its largely minority students. And many believe Mr. Hornsby, in his second year as CEO, was making some headway. The Prince George's board may fear turmoil, but it's not doing Mr. Hornsby, itself or the system any favors if there are lingering questions about the level of scrutiny that it has subjected him to on the LeapFrog contract and related issues.

We don't yet know if Mr. Hornsby's relationship with his girlfriend influenced the system's purchase of LeapFrog's products with federal funds. But if that's what happened, he would not only have breached serious ethical boundaries, but also have been guilty of giving short shrift to Prince George's students. Before the LeapFrog purchase, the school system didn't even do its usual in-depth evaluation of the educational software. Pupils everywhere deserve educational programs that have proved to work.

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