Ethical query for CEO prospect

Pa. school official cleared over trip backed by vendor

May 17, 2007|By Sara Neufeld and Liz Bowie | Sara Neufeld and Liz Bowie,Sun reporters

A possible contender to be Baltimore's next schools chief has faced ethical questions during his tenure as the No. 2 school official in Philadelphia.

Gregory Thornton was one of two top Philadelphia school officials who went on a trip to South Africa in the summer of 2004. The trip was partly paid for by an education software company, Plato Learning.

Later that year, Thornton and the other administrator who went on the trip signed off on a no-bid, $926,000 contract for Plato, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Philadelphia schools chief, Paul Vallas, said at the time that Thornton could be subject to disciplinary action. But in recent interviews, Vallas has played down the significance of the trip and contract award as he has promoted Thornton, his deputy, for multiple superintendent positions around the country.

In an interview yesterday, Vallas said that Thornton was cleared of any wrongdoing in an investigation by the inspector general's office. He said another official had made the decision to award the Plato contract and that Thornton's signature was just one of many required on the contract.

"It was much ado about nothing," Vallas said. "He never had a conflict. He was totally vindicated."

A spokesman for the Philadelphia school system did not return calls yesterday seeking comment from Thornton.

Conflicting reports

Reports conflict about whether Thornton is a candidate to be Baltimore's next chief executive officer.

Vallas, a nationally prominent figure in education, said in an interview Tuesday that Thornton was a "front-runner." Last night, he said Thornton is "still very interested in the job, but he doesn't know what his status is."

Vallas said his comment Tuesday about Thornton being a finalist was based on calls he had received from people including U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, not from Thornton himself. "If he's not one of the finalists, he should be," Vallas said.

Yesterday, in a private e-mail obtained by The Sun, a representative of the firm that the Baltimore school board hired to find a new CEO said that Thornton "wasn't even in this search." The representative, Nancy Noeske of PROACT Search Inc., sent the e-mail to a school system employee.

School board Chairman Brian D. Morris would not say whether Thornton is a candidate.

The board has been looking for a new CEO for several months. Charlene Cooper Boston has been interim CEO since Bonnie S. Copeland's departure last summer. Boston has said that she was applying for the permanent position, but she declined to comment this week about whether she is still in the running.

Sponsored trip

The trip Thornton took to South Africa was sponsored two years in a row for members of the National Alliance of Black School Educators. Andre J. Hornsby, then the schools chief in Prince George's County, let Plato pay his expenses on the 2003 trip. Prince George's schools then started a trial of Plato algebra software.

The Plato executive who organized the trips left the company in early 2005 after The Sun wrote about the Prince George's contract. Last year, Hornsby was indicted on charges that he orchestrated an elaborate scheme to award school contracts to financially benefit himself and ordered school officials to destroy evidence to cover up the crime. The indictment did not specifically involve the Plato contract.

`Cheap shot'

Vallas called media coverage of Thornton's involvement in the trip "a cheap shot," saying that "all the prominent African-American educators I know across the country took that trip."

In Baltimore, Thornton's candidacy for CEO has been promoted by Cummings, who encouraged the school board to hire Vallas or one of his proteges. Cummings said he first hoped that Vallas, who is leaving Philadelphia at the end of this school year, would consider the job. But Vallas has been hired to head the New Orleans school district.

Gov. Martin O'Malley sought Vallas' advice about education over the years as he took an active role in the city schools when he was mayor. In 2004, he flew to Chicago to see what Vallas had done as CEO to improve the schools there before moving to Philadelphia. The two men consulted before O'Malley's trip.

Mayoral control

Several months later, Vallas wrote an op-ed article in The Sun in which he promoted mayoral control of the Baltimore school system, suggesting that the schools would do better if O'Malley - then mayor - ran them rather than the partnership between the state and the city.

O'Malley has been in favor of returning control of the schools to the mayor for several years.

At a news conference yesterday, Mayor Sheila Dixon said she intends to play a significant role in narrowing down the finalists for schools CEO and that she will be asking would-be CEOs how they would change the status quo.

"We've been dilly-dallying around for the last 10 years," Dixon said. "What are they going to do to clean up, in some cases ... the mindset of an administration that I feel sometimes does not get it? How are they going to work and encourage talented teachers to want to stay?"

Dixon said she met with Morris a week ago to make sure she is given the opportunity to meet the finalists.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Sun reporters John Fritze and Brent Jones contributed to this article.

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