Heads of black education group at odds

President's letter blames executive director, asserts debt, falling membership

August 28, 2005|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The nation's largest organization of minority teachers and school administrators is mired in financial disarray and at risk of going under, according to a recent letter from the group's president faulting its executive director for the crisis and seeking his resignation.

The National Alliance of Black School Educators was formed 33 years ago to bring together African-American teachers and administrators with the goal of furthering the academic success of black children. The association, which is based in Washington and has strong Maryland ties, holds a large annual conference as well as smaller events around the country to foster professional development.

In the past year, however, the organization has come under scrutiny for its relationships with education vendors that sponsor its events, including several companies under federal investigation for allegedly taking advantage of a multibillion-dollar school technology program, with the help of NABSE. Some of the deals with vendors have involved Andre J. Hornsby, who led the group between 2001 and 2003 and resigned in May as superintendent of the Prince George's County schools amid a separate federal investigation into his dealings with an education software company that employed his girlfriend.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Sunday about unrest at the National Alliance of Black School Educators misstated the organization's financial difficulties, as described in a letter from the group's president. The organization's unpaid Washington, D.C., property tax bill reached about $17,000, not $264,000. Its total unpaid bills, including property taxes and credit cards, was about $264,000.
The Sun regrets the errors.

NABSE has been told it is not a target of any investigations.

But the letter mailed this month from its elected president, Deloris M. Saunders, to its paid executive director, Quentin R. Lawson, suggests that the organization is facing other major problems. In the letter, which was also mailed to the organization's board of directors and obtained by The Sun, Saunders says that Lawson presided over a collapse in the organization's finances, and she demands his resignation.

Lawson, who served as an aide to then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer in the 1980s, dismissed Saunders' concerns in an interview last week , saying NABSE's financial situation was little different than it has been for the past decade.

Dire portrayal

Among the letter's assertions about the organization's situation:

The organization has gone from having more than $1 million in the bank to being more than $800,000 in debt since Lawson became director in 1997, Saunders wrote. In recent months, it has had to sell more than a quarter-million dollars in stock and refinance its Capitol Hill office to pay down its debts.

Since 1997, it has gone from having 7,000 members and 110 active affiliates to fewer than 3,000 members and 10 active affiliates.

Washington, D.C., officials came close to putting the group's headquarters up for auction last month after the organization's unpaid taxes on the building grew to more than $264,000. Lawson never told the group's board about the unpaid bill, Saunders wrote.

The organization's American Express account used by Lawson to make purchases grew to $172,000, unbeknownst to board members, Saunders wrote. She said that when she tried to use her NABSE charge card to pay for a hotel bill and parking fee at NABSE events, it was rejected.

In the letter, Saunders said Lawson, who earns $130,000 a year, according to the group's latest available tax filings, bore responsibility for the group's plight because he spent excessively on NABSE receptions for educators with whom he was friendly but who were not necessarily active in the organization. She also accused him of keeping her and the rest of the organization's board in the dark about the mounting debts, from which the organization might not be able to recover.

"You have failed to perform to acceptable standards, you harmed NABSE irreparably, and you accept no responsibility for its demise. I am of the opinion that we will not recover from the devastation that occurred on your watch," she wrote. "

Lawson's view

Lawson said the letter distorted NABSE's situation. The organization often falls into the red at certain points in the year, only to become flush again after its annual fall conference, which generates most of its revenue, he said. And it is not unusual for it to take out a line of credit or sell stocks to get it through the low periods, he said.

Conference attendance has been down since Sept. 11, 2001, he said, but the group's membership decline was mainly a reflection of the earlier rolls having included many inactive members. And the late property tax bill was just an oversight, he said.

"The organization is doing exceptionally well," he said.

Saunders, a retired educator who lives in Prince George's County, declined to comment about the letter last week. Calls to six of NABSE's directors were not returned.

`You don't panic'

A former president of the organization, Lois Harrison-Jones, said she doubted NABSE's situation was as dire as Sanders thought, and said it was unlikely NABSE board members would follow Saunders' lead and vote to oust Lawson.

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