Balto. Co. needs a new school board

Our view: The latest questions about Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's steering of a contract to a friend show a real lack of oversight

February 09, 2011

The story is getting a little too familiar: Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston decides that someone he has worked with has developed a unique and crucial product, and the school district adopts it on his say-so, without checking to see if someone else could do the work better or cheaper. That was what happened in the case of the Articulated Instruction Module grading system developed by Mr. Hairston's former top deputy, and it was the case with the EduTrax data management software, which was created by a man who worked for Mr. Hairston when the superintendent ran a school district in Georgia.

With AIM, the district backed away from mandating the system's use after an outcry from teachers, and although it signed away the rights to the program and spent untold man-hours turning former Assistant Superintendent Barbara Dezmon's pencil-and-paper idea into software, it didn't actually shell out any money. With EduTrax, the district has spent $4 million during the last decade. The attention Baltimore County legislators are now paying to the EduTrax contract is welcome, as are their calls for greater transparency in county contracting.

But as fine an idea as it is to require the district to post information about payments to contractors on a website (as in legislation sponsored by Del. Steve Lafferty), the district already has a panel that has access to that information and is supposed to be raising questions about no-bid deals. It's called the school board, and its lack of scrutiny is just as troublesome as Mr. Hairston's propensity to insist on products created by his associates.

To Mr. Hairston's credit, he answered questions about his reasoning in selecting EduTrax, a contrast to his stonewalling of the attorney general's office over the AIM controversy. School Board President Earnest Hines also discussed the matter with The Sun's Liz Bowie, but rather than offering reassurance, their answers only served to raise more concerns about the district's procurement practices.

Mr. Hairston said it was his personal knowledge as a technology expert that allowed him to conclude that there was no other product on the market that would have been appropriate for Baltimore County. The implication is that competitive bidding, either through a low-bidder process or a more elaborate request for proposals, would have been a waste of time. But the point of seeking a variety of proposals is that officials can never be sure otherwise that they have considered all of the options. Perhaps, in a bit of serendipity, Mr. Hairston happened to have worked in Georgia with the one person in the world who could produce a data management system that would meet the needs of students in suburban Baltimore. But perhaps someone Mr. Hairston didn't know would have had an even better idea, or at least a cheaper one. Steering contracts to former associates may not be corrupt, but it's certainly lazy.

When Mr. Hairston brought the EduTrax matter before the board, members should have been skeptical of the superintendent's assertion that it was the only option. But according to Mr. Hines, sole-source purchases are not rare in the Baltimore County school district. That's a sign, if any was needed after the AIM fiasco, that the board has not been exercising sufficient oversight.

That's why the most important reform for the Baltimore County school district being considered in Annapolis this year is legislation sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin and Del. Dan Morhaim, among others, to change the governance structure of the school board. Their approach would make the board a hybrid of elected and appointed members — a good compromise between an all-elected board, which can become overly political, and an all-appointed one, which, as experience in Baltimore County shows, can become complacent. And that is the crux of the problem in Baltimore County. Some of Mr. Hairston's decisions have been questionable, but the board's lack of scrutiny has been inexcusable.

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