Corrupt, or just sloppy?

Our view: Public confidence in the city's school reform effort as a whole takes a hit every time the system hires someone with bogus credentials for a top job

May 02, 2011

Kevin Seawright, the high-ranking school department official who resigned Thursday after The Sun questioned his academic credentials, may have been good at his job. But that doesn't change the fact that no one apparently bothered to check out his background before offering him the post. Either the Baltimore school system decided it didn't care that one of its top officials had degrees from unaccredited universities — in effect, no academic qualifications at all — or it didn't know.

Neither possibility speaks well of the system, but given that its mission is to encourage academic achievement among students, the most charitable description of the lapse would be to call it a case of inexcusable sloppiness. That still a lot better than just plain corrupt.

Mr. Seawright, the school system's deputy chief operating officer since 2008, was being paid $135,200 to oversee the system's building, maintenance, transportation, food and nutrition services. But his resume listed bachelor's and master's degrees from two institutions, Rocklands University and Almeda University, that educators say are little more than commercial diploma mills offering worthless degrees. Neither school is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which certifies degree-granting institutions, or by the U.S. Department of Education, which determines whether schools are eligible for federal funds. Degrees from both universities have been banned in several states.

It would be embarrassing enough for a school system to knowingly hire someone with such questionable credentials to fill one of its top positions. But it's not even clear the school department was aware that Mr. Seawright's degrees might be problematic because officials have refused to answer questions about what happened, saying it is a "personnel matter" that they are barred from discussing publically. That's strikes us as unfair to both Mr. Seawright, who is leaving the department under a cloud, and to the public, whose trust in officials to make wise hiring decisions for important jobs has been betrayed.

If the school department knew Mr. Seawright's academic credentials were open to question, yet believed his prior positions and experience were sufficiently impressive to overcome that deficiency, it should simply have said so and stood behind his appointment. One can imagine situations in which an employer might choose to hire someone with limited formal academic training but a wealth of experience on the job and a track record of success. Mr. Seawright apparently never tried to hide the fact that his degrees came from non-accredited, on-line schools with minimal requirements. If school officials felt he brought other strengths to the job that outweighed those considerations, they could said so from the start.

Since they didn't do that, the more likely explanation is that nobody ever checked to see whether Mr. Seawright's credentials might be a problem — even though the school board pledged to do just that as recently as 2009. That was when the school system tried to hire Brian D. Morris, a former city school board chairman, to an unadvertised, $175,000 administrative post, despite his having a long history of financial and legal woes and never having earned the University of Maryland bachelor's degree he claimed.

In that fiasco, the school department, the state board of education, the mayor's office and the governor's office all said they assumed someone else was responsible for vetting Mr. Morris. The fact is they all fell down on the job. Now it appears the controversy over Mr. Seawright's credentials is a repeat of that experience. It's unfathomable that the school department just doesn't seem to get the fact that public confidence in the whole reform effort takes a hit every time such incidents come to light.

At the very least, city schools CEO Andrés Alonso owes the public an apology for the damage his department has inflicted on itself. More than that, he needs to explain how this could have happened so soon after the department promised to vet its staffers more thoroughly and what he intends to do to ensure such situations don't arise in the future.

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