Educators' deals under scrutiny


The National Alliance of Black School Educators was formed with this mission in mind: furthering the academic success of African-American children.

But in recent years, the country's largest organization of minority teachers and school administrators has come to serve another constituency as well: education companies seeking to do business with African-American school officials, particularly those in charge of large urban districts with millions to spend.

NABSE leaders, among them Prince George's schools Chief Executive Officer Andre J. Hornsby, have forged close partnerships with education vendors that use the group to form connections with administrators. In return, the companies reward the NABSE with commissions, donations and sponsorships of NABSE trips, parties and other events.

The group's leaders say its corporate partnerships are no different from those formed by other education organizations looking to pay for their activities. Other professional groups, they say, also encourage vendors to set up exhibition booths or sponsor events at conferences.

The NABSE "survives with the same modus operandi as other professional associations," said Deloris Saunders, president of the Washington-based group. "NABSE has not compromised anything in accepting money from companies. NABSE is not for sale."

But several of the NABSE's corporate partnerships go beyond having a company sponsor a luncheon or a reception, and extend to arrangements in which the group actively helps companies gain access to school officials - something other groups say they try to avoid.

Even as they defend the organization, some NABSE leaders acknowledge that the organization needs to reconsider relationships that may reflect on the integrity of its mission.

Examples of the NABSE's closer partnerships include:

A deal arranged in the late 1990s with three technology companies to take advantage of the federal E-rate program, which distributes $2.25 billion a year raised in telephone taxes to pay for Internet hook-ups in schools in poor neighborhoods. Under the deal, which is under scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice, the NABSE recommended the companies - NEC-Business Network Solutions, Video Network Communications Inc. and IBM - to school officials seeking to take advantage of the E-rate program. In return, documents show, the NABSE received a commission from the companies, in violation of E-rate rules on use of funds.

"It seems like NABSE was being used by these businesses as a ... nonprofit type of veneer for getting into these schools," said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat and member of a committee that held a hearing on the deal in September.

An alliance created this year with the education software company LeapFrog SchoolHouse under which it and the NABSE jointly hold seminars on the "Over-Representation of African-American Males in Special Education." The NABSE invites its members to the daylong seminars, but participants say the discussion soon moves into product presentations by LeapFrog salesmen.

A partnership created in 2002 with the education software company Plato Learning, which includes annual trips to South Africa for NABSE members. The trips are heavily subsidized by Plato and allow its executives to meet school officials.

Congressional hearing

The E-rate deal has been particularly troubling for the NABSE. At the congressional hearing in September, a superintendent from a rural South Carolina district said he went along with companies on a $10 million Internet project on the basis of the NABSE's recommendation. Later, the government disputed several million dollars of that amount, saying it was ineligible.

"With a reputable organization like NABSE, we just assumed that everything was OK," said Jasper County, S.C., schools chief William Singleton.

Some NABSE members, saying they believe strongly in the value of the 6,000-person group, acknowledged that it has to guard itself against being compromised by corporate ties.

"I don't see any problem ... if someone has used a product and can tell me if it's useful. But there's a fine line between providing information and acting as an agent for a company," said Cheryl Beaco, a New Orleans principal attending the NABSE's annual convention in November in Dallas.

Several NABSE leaders said that if any partnerships were perceived as crossing the line, those deals did not reflect the group's overall direction. They said some changes may be needed.

Lois Harrison-Jones, a former Boston superintendent who preceded Hornsby as president, said she saw nothing wrong in the organization's partnering with companies with products that had been shown to be effective. But she said she will recommend that the group re-evaluate the LeapFrog seminars to make sure their educational substance balanced out the commercial pitch.

And Saunders, the group's president, said the board would re-evaluate the Africa trips, which she believes may not be appropriate.

Like some other NABSE leaders, Saunders sought to distinguish what the organization does with the board's blessing versus what individual members may do.

For example, Hornsby, NABSE president between 2001 and 2003, has been under fire for his close relationships with vendors, including Plato, which paid for his trip to South Africa in 2003, and LeapFrog, which until last week employed Hornsby's girlfriend as a saleswoman.

"You have to separate NABSE the organization from individuals. The organization itself is committed to its mission and ethical practices," said Saunders, a Burtonsville resident. "When something occurs outside typical [procedures], it's something we correct as quickly as possible."

Hornsby has declined repeated requests for interviews.

Another NABSE leader, executive director Quentin R. Lawson, is central to the investigation into the E-rate partnership. He has obtained his own lawyer and took the Fifth Amendment in declining to testify before Congress. Saunders, meanwhile, says the NABSE's lawyer has been told the group itself is not a target.

But Lawson, who earns $120,000 as head of a staff of a half-dozen in a small office on Capitol Hill, rejected the notion that any of the group's activities were undertaken outside board purview. "Every chief executive officer would certainly want to feel that every idea came from him or her, but [the partnerships] must have board approval. The board has sanctioned everything we do," said Lawson, who worked as an aide to then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

The main annual activities of the group, founded in 1971, are its fall convention, which draws as many as 4,000 educators to four days of receptions, workshops and speeches, and a spring policy institute, where members meet in Washington to discuss federal legislation. Local chapters of the group undertake other initiatives on their own.

To pay for these activities, the group relies heavily on corporate support. According to its 2002 tax returns, the most recent available, annual membership dues of $100 bring in $275,000, about 15 percent of the group's $1.8 million budget. Two-thirds of the budget is paid for by revenues from the group's activities, primarily the annual convention - its registration fees (about $300) and, most of all, sponsorships of convention events.

Lawson says corporate support amounts to no more than $300,000 per year, but the group's list of sponsorship fees for the Dallas convention alone adds up to well above that.

While other education groups also receive money from companies sponsoring conference events or renting exhibition booths, their leaders say they try to avoid partnerships that serve mainly to link companies with educators.

Barbara Knisely, spokeswoman for the American Association of School Administrators, said the group lets companies sponsor seminars but not influence the sessions' content. And Richard Long, a director at the International Reading Association, said that group grants access to educators only where the guidelines are clear to all, as at conference exhibition halls.

"A fundamental issue is, is it a transparent interaction? The transparency is what's important," Long said.

The commercial aims of the NABSE's partnerships, by contrast, are not always clearly defined. The Plato-sponsored trips to South Africa are called "international leadership symposiums" and billed as a way to encourage exchanges between U.S. and South African schools.

But Plato, which pays the full travel cost of selected administrators while subsidizing the $2,500 fee that others pay, also sends executives along to socialize with educators on the trip.

And the list of educators invited to attend correlates with districts where Plato has made inroads. Hornsby, whose district is now trying out Plato math software with an eye toward buying it for all Prince George's high schools, is one example.

Trip to Africa

The 2003 trip also included Linder Howze-Campbell, who later presided over a $60,000-per-school purchase of Plato products in Mound Bayou, Miss., where she was superintendent at the time. She said the purchase was motivated by seeing Plato at work at a school in South Africa, but not by any pitches she received on the trip.

"I really wasn't moved by who was subsidizing" the trip, she said. "I just really went there to look at [South Africa's] educational system and compare it with what we were doing."

The NABSE's Lawson also disputed that Plato was using the trips for business. "We think [the trips] are totally worthwhile, and we totally reject any conjecture that Plato is making any direct or indirect approaches" during them, he said.

The special education seminars are also helping their sponsor, LeapFrog.

At NABSE's Dallas convention last month, a truncated version of the seminar appeared to some in the room to be a LeapFrog pitch. A company salesman opened the session with a very broad discussion of special-education referrals. He distributed data collected by the NABSE showing the racial breakdown of students in special education, but the data were six years old, as one educator pointed out.

By the time the salesman started moving into his pitch, one teacher from Cincinnati had had enough. "This is a sales seminar. This is a waste of my time," she muttered as she left. But most of the 40 educators stayed for the full pitch and for the lottery for LeapFrog materials that ended the session.

LeapFrog SchoolHouse President Bob Lally, who resigned this month after a company ethics inquiry into a recent sale in Prince George's, said after the session that LeapFrog doesn't expect educators to buy from it just because of its link with the NABSE. The partnership was meant as "kind of a branding thing" for LeapFrog, he said.

"Partnership is a loose word," he said. "It's not like a legal thing. It's not like if we sell something, we give [the NABSE] money."

NABSE did profit from its E-rate partnership, according to the government, through a 1.5 percent commission that brought in about $100,000.

NABSE officials have disputed that the money they received was commissions, terming it routine corporate contributions. But lawmakers cite a 2000 memo from the three companies to Lawson promising NABSE "1.5 percent of cumulative business generated by sales to NABSE member schools."

At the House hearing into the partnership, Rep. Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, questioned Emma Epps, a NABSE board member and Michigan superintendent, about why the organization had agreed to the 1.5 percent payment, rather than simply helping schools apply for E-rate without seeking a cut.

"Why would NABSE get that funding, as opposed to just helping schools for free?" he asked. "That's your mission, right?"

Epps' reply was curt: "Our mission is to help schools and children, yes."

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