Baltimore County school Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's refusal to cooperate with the Maryland attorney general's office has stymied an inquiry into whether the school system violated ethics policies involving a contentious grading system.
The attorney general's office began looking into ethics questions at the request of state legislators who wanted to know whether it was acceptable for the school system to give a now-retired employee the copyright to the online grading program called the Articulated Instruction Module, or AIM.
Legislators said they are upset that Hairston and the employee, Barbara Dezmon, declined to be interviewed, and said they intend to take the issue further after the election, perhaps during the next legislative session.
"The fact that they refused to speak, I found to be pretty appalling," said Del. Stephen W. Lafferty, a Baltimore County Democrat. "If there is nothing of concern in the way this was handled, [Hairston and Dezmon] shouldn't have had a problem with it."
"I just think it is really unfortunate," agreed Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "The attorney general tried to get to the truth" but is "being hindered by lack of cooperation."
After repeated requests for comment from Hairston this week, the school system's public information officer said he was in Washington and she could not reach him.
Dezmon said this week that she had decided not to cooperate with the attorney general because he wouldn't tell her specifically what he wanted to talk about.
"I declined because as a person who had always fought for civil rights and rights for people, I considered the whole situation to stem from a mass of lies and untruths," she said. Dezmon said she was insulted because none of the legislators she knew came to ask her about AIM. "I considered it akin to a lynching because no wrong had been done," she said.
Hairston signed a legal agreement in 2007 with Dezmon, giving her the right to sell the program to other school systems, including a software version that was created by county personnel at taxpayer expense. In return, the school system has the right to use the program for free. Dezmon retired July 1 as the assistant to the superintendent for equity and assurance.
Robert McDonald, the attorney general's chief counsel on opinions and advice, wrote to the legislators Sept. 15 and said he could not draw a conclusion on some of the issues they requested that he look into, because both Dezmon and Hairston refused to be interviewed.
The legislators had wanted the attorney general's office to answer several questions, including whether AIM was the intellectual property of the school system and whether the school system's use of it involves a conflict of interest that violates ethics rules.
Initially a little-known program, which Dezmon created with paper and pencil many years ago, AIM drew the attention of legislators after an order went out from the superintendent's office last December forcing teachers to begin using it immediately.
Within days, teachers complained that the grading system was time-consuming and redundant because it required them to assess each student on dozens of items several times each year. (The tool also includes a component for teachers to have online access to curriculum, the only element still in use in the county school system.) Half of the teaching corps signed a petition expressing their opposition and legislators said they were flooded with phone calls, e-mails and letters.
Brochin said he is particularly concerned about the intellectual property question of whether Dezmon had the right to the product that was created. "The only way we are going to get the answer is with the superintendent's cooperation," he said.
McDonald could not reach a conclusion on that point, saying in a letter to legislators, "It is not clear that the paper-and-pencil version belonged to Dr. Dezmon."
McDonald also examined a decision by an ethics review panel appointed by the school board several years ago that found that there were no conflict-of-interest violations regarding AIM. But the panel noted that it would have been better if the agreement between the school system and Dezmon had been discussed openly at the time it was signed. McDonald came to no conclusion about whether the panel's decision was correct.
On a third point that the legislature wanted McDonald to look into, he found that the school system had not violated the open-meetings law when an AIM work group excluded Baltimore County teachers' union president Cheryl Bost from its meeting. The work group, he said, was not a public body.
The attorney general's office does not have subpoena power in a case such as this that does not involve criminal or antitrust issues, according to Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the office, so Hairston and Dezmon cannot be forced to take part in an interview.