Attorney: Nothing wrong with Balto. Co. schools' AIM grading deal

Says Hairston acted within authority to sign away rights to software developed by staff

December 08, 2010|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County School Superintendent Joe A. Hairston acted within his authority when he signed an agreement that allowed an assistant superintendent to gain financially from the sale of an online grading program created in part by school system employees, according to an attorney for the board of education.

Attorney Andrew W. Nussbaum told board members Tuesday that he believed there was nothing in the law that prohibited Hairston from signing the 2007 agreement that allowed then-Assistant Superintendent Barbara Dezmon to use system staff to turn her paper-and-pencil idea into a computer software program.

In addition, Nussbaum said, the agreement did not need to come before the school board because it did not involve an expenditure of more than $25,000. In fact, he said, the school system was getting something for free — the use of the software program — in return for giving Dezmon the rights.

"This issue has been an albatross hanging around the necks of the board," said Lawrence Schmidt, a school board member who is an attorney. "I think that the contract is binding on the school system at this time … I am hopeful we can move beyond this issue."

School system employees worked to create the software program, but the agreement gives Dezmon the right to sell the program to other school systems for her own financial gain.

Dezmon says she designed the Articulated Instruction Module while working on her own time, not as part of her duties as a teacher in the Baltimore County schools. She says she, not the school system, owns the copyright to AIM.

The state 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 software.

But the attorney general's inquiry was stymied when Hairston and Dezmon refused to cooperate. In an interview in October, Dezmon explained her reasoning: "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, in a letter to the attorney general's office written by the school system's attorney in August, said he didn't feel the need to speak with legislators because he believed their questions had been answered.

But several legislators said they were surprised by the refusal and still wanted answers.

In an interview with a television station later, Hairston made reference to Antero Pietila's "Not in My Neighborhood," a book that details racism in Baltimore County, and said that he believed that was what was going on. Hairston and Dezmon are black.

After Hairston's refusal to cooperate became public, the school board asked Nussbaum, who is the board's outside counsel and does not report to Hairston, to research the issue and make his findings public at a meeting. Nussbaum is a partner in a Prince George's County firm.

Nussbaum's report to the board Tuesday night was the first time questions about the agreement had been raised in public session.

Board member Valerie Roddy asked if school system resources were used to create the software program and whether the school system had given up something of value to Dezmon when it allowed her to have the source code.

Nussbaum said that he was not in a position to put a value on the software, but that at the time it was determined that the school system was getting something of value. School district employees turned Dezmon's concept into a software program. Dezmon retains ownership of the program and the right to market it.

Nussbaum's report to the board did not answer one of the central questions asked by legislators and members of the public: Should Hairston have entered into the agreement with Dezmon?

Board members said they wanted to put the issue behind them.

Rumors have swirled around the system for months that Dezmon, who retired on July 1 as the assistant superintendent for equity and assurance, was still under contract with the school system and that she has been showing up at school headquarters and ordering staff around.

Hairston was asked whether Dezmon had any contract with the county schools.

"As far as my knowledge is concerned she is under no contract with the school system. I have not seen her," he said. "I don't know her whereabouts."

In an intevew in October, Dezmon said she had responded to requests from school system employees who called to ask her questions about the work that she had left.

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