School official resigns amid Sun investigation into his college degrees

Deputy chief operating officer made $135,200 with degrees from unaccredited universities

April 28, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

A high-ranking city school official, whose resume includes degrees from institutions that require little or no classroom work and which academic watchdog groups have referred to as "diploma mills," resigned abruptly Thursday after questions about his credentials were raised by The Baltimore Sun.

Kevin Seawright, deputy chief operating officer with an annual salary of $135,200, said he resigned his post to enter the private sector. Schools CEO Andrés Alonso revealed the resignation in an email to school system staff Thursday, saying that Seawright "worked tirelessly during my administration to improve our responsiveness to schools."

Seawright's resignation from the position, which he has held since 2008, came one day after The Sun asked school officials to explain Seawright's academic credentials, which include a bachelor's degree in accounting from Rocklands University and a master's degree in business administration from Almeda University.

Rocklands, which is believed to be based in the United Kingdom, and Almeda, which offers degrees based on "life experience," are not accredited or recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, according to a department spokeswoman.

Because they are not accredited, they are not eligible for federal funds and are often not recognized for employment eligibility by public agencies. In addition, private agencies are not required to accept them for employment. Degrees from both universities have also been banned in several states.

Almeda "is a diploma mill for sure, no doubt about it," said George Gollin, a board member of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an organization of degree-granting colleges and universities and national accreditation oversight body.

"It should be a tremendous embarrassment to the Baltimore schools, and the person who vetted these things should really have their head on a plate," said Gollin, who is a physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "This is pretty serious."

The city school system said that while it could not comment on specific personnel issues, it believes that during the hiring process, a candidate's experience should be taken into consideration along with educational qualifications. A spokeswoman said that online degrees may meet requirements for some jobs.

"As long as a person is honest about their credentials, and the value of their performance is proven, the online credentials might be appropriate for some high-ranking positions, but not others," said schools spokeswoman Edie House-Foster.

"Clearly, they would not be appropriate for educational leadership positions," she said. "But they might have a different significance in the context of a person's experience for operational leadership positions. Ultimately, the question should be what can a person do to serve our kids."

On Wednesday, The Sun asked Seawright about his education, and he provided copies of his degrees and transcripts from both universities. He said he included the information on his resume to the school system as well.

Seawright said he had no reason to believe his degrees were illegitimate. He said Thursday that his resignation was not related to questions surrounding his academic record, adding that he was leaving the district to head project management at a private firm.

"I appreciated working with the district, and I am moving on to the private sector," said Seawright shortly after his resignation. "I feel as though I have served the children of Baltimore to the best of my ability. It was pleasure serving under Dr. Alonso and [chief operating officer] Keith Scroggins and improving operational facilities for Baltimore City children."

On Wednesday, Seawright defended his credentials and qualifications for the deputy chief operating officer position, saying they fit the job description — overseeing, among other things, school facilities, maintenance, transportation, food and nutrition. The deputy COO's responsibilities include managing up to 1,500 personnel, a $150 million operating budget and a $52 million capital budget. The deputy position is the only one of its kind throughout the school system.

According to public personnel reports, Seawright was hired as a special assistant in the Office of the Chief Operating Officer on Jan. 24, 2006, at a salary of $96,000. Seawright had previously worked as the chief fiscal officer for Baltimore City's Department of Parks and Recreation for about six years.

In 2008, he was promoted to the deputy chief operating officer at a salary of $130,000 and received a cost-of-living adjustment that brought him to his current salary of $135,200, city school officials said. City school officials said that Seawright was promoted based on his performance, not his credentials.

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