Parents, teachers and principals in Baltimore County are raising questions about whether a top school administrator should have been involved in decisions about the widespread use of a contentious grading system she owns and whether she should be allowed to profit if the program is sold to other districts.
Barbara Dezmon, an assistant to the superintendent, has met with top administrators deciding when and how to implement the Articulated Instruction Module, or AIM, a program she developed to help ensure that minority students were receiving a quality education.
Dezmon holds a copyright to the grading plan that she created with pencil and paper more than a decade ago, but which was enhanced by school system employees who turned it into a detailed computer program.
She has offered the program to superintendents across Maryland at no cost but has said that she intends to market it outside the state when she retires.
"It seems like a highly unusual arrangement to give her the copyright and she trades that off for letting the district use it for free. That doesn't seem like a good idea. ... I think there are real ethical issues here," said C. Fred Alford, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park who teaches ethics.
Having the program used throughout Baltimore County, the 26th-largest district in the nation, could make it easier to market to other states, education experts say.
The county school district issued a directive to all teachers in mid-December to begin using AIM immediately and to produce reports with the program at the end of the second marking period, in late January.
Dezmon, a longtime advocate of the plan, gave a presentation on the program at a meeting that resulted in the order and was among the high-ranking administrators present.
Teachers criticized the decision to implement the program, calling it time-consuming and cumbersome.
Although Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston has delayed the roll-out, opposition to the program continues.
Dozens who attended a school system budget hearing Tuesday night spoke out against the program.
"My issue is, how can you copyright something and make a profit on it when you are doing it on Baltimore County time?" said Robin Radcliff, parent of a pupil at Johnnycake Elementary School, in an interview.
The county teachers union is discussing the possibility of legal action that would raise conflict-of-interest questions and could help evaluate whether Dezmon should hold a copyright to the materials, according to Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.
George Hohl, executive director of the Association of Elementary School Administrators in the county, said the group wrote Hairston a letter requesting that the implementation of AIM be delayed. Principals "raised a number of questions, including whether it was an ethical way to develop curriculum materials," he said.
Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, parent of a county high school student, questioned the propriety of Dezmon's having been involved in meetings at which AIM was discussed.
"She is assistant to the superintendent. She has a lot of power in deciding what is going to happen. The people under her have to accept it. I think that is ethically compromising," Taylor-Mitchell said.
The teachers union wants to examine whether Dezmon, who is the assistant to the superintendent for equity and assurance, should be involved in making decisions about the program's implementation, according to Bost.
"Because we have no chief academic officer, she has been taking on that role and crafting this program in its implementation stage," Bost said. "To us, that is clearly conflict of interest."
Hairston did not respond to Sun requests for comment.
Dezmon said she met with top administrators Dec. 16 to discuss the implementation of the system. She said she told them that AIM was being used sporadically in schools and that not all students were included. She said she suggested that AIM should be done well or not at all.
"I have nothing to do with your decision," she said she told the administrators.
Hairston, she said, was well aware that the system was not being used uniformly and had ordered the staff to fix the problem. She said the administrators then made the decision to go ahead with mandatory use in county schools.
Alford said the apparent conflict of interest bothers him less than the issues of copyright. It should be logical, he said, for a school system to consult the employee who created the program about its implementation.
Two weeks ago, Hairston backed away from the decision to implement AIM and said he plans to streamline the program before it is used.
Teachers say they would have to produce hundreds of pages of data to complete evaluations, which grade the progress of their students on dozens of skills. AIM has a separate component that makes the county curriculum accessible to teachers online.