Delegate questions Hairston's endorsement of products

School superintendent is on website of EduTrax, company that received no-bid contract

February 11, 2011|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

A state delegate called into question on Friday Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's online endorsement of software products sold by a company that the system gave a contract to without competitive bidding.

Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat, said during a legislative hearing that he had concerns about whether it was appropriate for the company, EduTrax, to have a testimonial from Hairston posted on its website. He said that such endorsements are not allowed under guidelines for state officials.

"Frankly, it disturbed me to have the appearance of endorsing a product," Morhaim told Hairston. He also had concerns about whether it was appropriate for the school system to have offered a no-bid contract to EduTrax.

Hairston said his name is most likely being used to promote products around the country because Baltimore County is such a respected school system.

The questions from Morhaim about the EduTrax contract came on a day when the county delegation asked Hairston about several contentious issues, including a recently enforced rule that is preventing some community groups from holding fundraising events such as craft fairs in their schools, even though most of the proceeds benefit the schools.

According to the Baltimore County public schools' facilities policy, approved users such as the PTA cannot "sublease or rent BCPS facilities and grounds to any other parties," such as vendors.

Hairston asked the legislators to give the school system time to "work through this issue." He said the board was "sensitive" to the concerns and wanted to be responsive to the delegation.

Earnest E. Hines, the president of the school board, said in an interview that members will review the policy at a retreat next Friday. "We are going to re-evaluate it," Hines said, making sure to consider liability issues as well as the views of different "stakeholders." But Hines said that did not mean the board would be reconsidering the policy.

"We are very, very upset in my community," said Del. Joseph J. Minnick, a Baltimore County Democrat who represents the Dundalk area. "This administration made it so hard to raise money." He said the effect was that the schools were losing a lot of volunteers. "It is just not a fair policy."

Several other members of the delegation said the schools should be open. "The community school belongs to the community," said Sen. Katherine Klausemeier, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Members of the delegation said they have heard from many constituents who want the policy reversed. Several major crafts fairs that raise tens of thousands of dollars have been shut down in the past two years, including one at Ridgely Middle School.

Hairston was also questioned about a proposed budget that includes the elimination of 196 teacher positions at a time when enrollment is rising by 800. Legislators asked about increases in class size and whether it might be better to cut administrators and not classroom teachers.

Del. Wade Kach, a Baltimore County Republican, said after the meeting that the number of people in administration has clearly gone up. "I don't know why there is a need for more administrators in the central office," he said.

On the matter of EduTrax, Hairston vigorously defended the contract.

"Recent newspaper articles seem to be more manufactured than anything else," Hairston said. "Why all of a sudden [is] all of this is coming out with no way to substantiate it."

Earlier this week, The Baltimore Sun reported that Hairston had selected EduTrax, a Georgia software company that had gotten at least $4 million over the past decade without the county seeking competitive offers. The owner of EduTrax was a former employee of Hairston's when he worked in a Georgia school district.

"I do not make procurement decisions," Hairston told legislators. He said staff in the procurement office determine whether a product should go to the board for approval. However, under questioning, he acknowledged the contract was sole-sourced, or never put out to bid.

Morhaim, who heads a House subcommittee that considers government purchasing issues, asked Hairston to submit a list of all contracts that the school district has sole-sourced.

The county delegates voted to support a bill that would require the school system to post on its website how much it pays each contractor.

In addition, support for a bill to study whether the school board should be a mix of appointed and elected members seemed to gain support. One of the sponsors, Del. John Olszewski Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, said he believes the study group should also look at how to make the school system more independent from the superintendent, including whether the board should have more staff reporting directly to it.

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