Questioning AIM

Our view: Hairston's actions may have been legal, but they weren't wise

December 13, 2010

After meeting with an attorney last week, Baltimore County school board members seem to have satisfied themselves that Superintendent Joe A. Hairston acted within his authority when he allowed one of his top deputies to retain the right to profit financially from the sale of an online grading program created in part by school system employees, and now they want to put the whole matter behind them. But just because the arrangement was legal doesn't mean it was a smart thing to do.

In 2007, Mr. Hairston signed an agreement with then-Assistant Superintendent Barbara Dezmon allowing her to turn a pencil-and-paper idea for evaluating students, which she had developed in her spare time, into a computer software program for the school system's use that also would be offered free to other Maryland school districts.

So far, so good. But the contract went on to give Ms. Dezmon the sole right to sell the electronic version of her idea outside the state, even though the input of other county employees had been crucial in making it a viable product. That raised a legitimate question in some lawmakers' minds as to whether it was appropriate for a school department employee to benefit financially from a project funded at least partially with taxpayer dollars.

Yet when several legislators and an investigator for the state attorney general's office sought to ask Mr. Hairston whether the arrangement was really such a good deal for the county, he blew them off, suggesting they had no right to question his judgment. To make matters worse, he then implied the queries were motivated by racial animus (both he and Ms. Dezmon are African-American) and thus beneath contempt.

Last week, an attorney hired by the school board told members that Mr. Hairston violated no state law by entering into the agreement with Ms. Dezmon, who has since retired from the school system, mainly because the value of the services she provided, in the form of her pencil-and-paper idea, were worth less than the $25,000 threshold for competitive bidding. But we'd have more confidence in that finding if it were confirmed by the state attorney general's office, with which Mr. Hairston is still refusing to cooperate.

What the lawyer's report did not address, however, was the wisdom of signing away the county's potentially lucrative intellectual property rights to the electronic version of the system if and when it is sold outside the state.

Let's say Bill Gates is working for IBM in the 1970s and tells his boss he has an idea to make the company's computers run better but needs someone to write the code. IBM agrees, provides the code-writing for free and takes no more stake in the eventual product than a free copy of Windows for the office to use. That, too, would have been perfectly legal — and perfectly stupid.

Unfortunately, the school board seems interested in determining no more than whether Mr. Hairston has managed to avoid breaking the law during his tenure. It has expressed little interest in investigating the circumstances of the district's decision in 2009 to require all teachers to start using AIM immediately, or in criticizing the imperious manner with which Mr. Hairston has dealt with anyone who raised questions about the appropriateness of what could become, in effect, a giant severance payment for Ms. Dezmon. If there's a reasonable explanation for Mr. Hairston's actions, he should be willing to defend them to anyone who asks. If not, the county executive and council who approve his budget need to step in and demand some answers.

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