Official with Plato resigns

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The country's second-largest education software company has announced the departure of an executive who was involved in dealings with the Prince George's County schools chief that are being investigated.

Plato Learning said this week that the departure of Steven Niederman, its vice president of strategic initiatives, was not related to his interactions with Andre J. Hornsby, chief executive officer of the Prince George's schools. Spokeswoman Terri Rieden, declined to give a reason for the move or to specify whether Niederman had resigned or been fired.

"I would just say that he is no longer with the company," she said.

Niederman was a lead organizer of 10-day trips to South Africa that the Minnesota-based company sponsored in 2003 and last year for the National Alliance of Black School Educators. Hornsby is under scrutiny for, among things, letting Plato pay his expenses on the 2003 trip, when he was president of the education group and CEO of the school system.

At Hornsby's urging, Prince George's has since started a yearlong trial of Plato algebra software at two schools, with an eye toward buying it for the entire district. Niederman, a Montgomery County resident, has been one of the company's primary liaisons to Hornsby.

Reached yesterday, Niederman said his departure from the company had "nothing at all" to do with his interactions with Hornsby or the Africa trips, which the company said this week have been discontinued. "Why I leave or stay with a company is my business," he said, before hanging up.

Niederman's departure follows closely the resignation of another education software executive with ties to Hornsby and Prince George's. Last month, the president of LeapFrog SchoolHouse resigned after a company inquiry into a $40,000 commission that was paid in a $1 million sale to Prince George's in June.

In addition, in November, Plato announced the resignation of its CEO, John Murray, who participated in at least one of the trips to South Africa. The company, whose sales have not met expectations in recent months, has said Murray's departure was not related to the trips or Prince George's.

Hornsby's dealings with education vendors including LeapFrog and Plato are under investigation by the U.S. attorney and the Maryland state prosecutor. The inquiries followed reports in The Sun about Hornsby's acceptance of the trip to South Africa and his failure to disclose that he was living with a LeapFrog saleswoman when he presided over the $1 million purchase from the company.

Hornsby has said that he had no knowledge of his girlfriend's benefiting from the sale, which the company initially said was handled by a second saleswoman. Both saleswomen left LeapFrog last month after the inquiry into the commission.

Hornsby has also said that his acceptance of the South Africa trip from Plato has played no role in the county's deliberations about buying Plato algebra software.

The company has said it paid for his trip not to curry favor in Prince George's but because its policy was to pay the full cost of all leaders of the black educator alliance on the trips to South Africa. Others on the trip paid a subsidized rate of $2,500.

The trips were part of a partnership between Plato and the educator alliance in 2002, when Hornsby was the alliance's president, under which Plato pledged to provide $3 million in free materials to districts led by alliance members who buy Plato products. The trips, which were attended by Plato executives and school officials, included visits to schools, safaris and wine-tastings.

Plato officials have said the partnership is part of the company's effort to improve education for needy students, but critics see such arrangements as an attempt to gain access to administrators in charge of large urban districts with millions in funding. The 2001 No Child Left Behind federal reform law has fueled efforts by education vendors to sell materials to officials who are eager to raise test scores to comply with the law.

As recently as last month, Plato was advertising its next trip to Africa with the alliance for this summer, but Rieden said yesterday that the company's new CEO has canceled the trips because "spending priorities have changed."

Meanwhile, the inquiries into Hornsby's dealings with education vendors are starting to take a toll in Prince George's. The Washington Post reported yesterday that state education officials have frozen $10 million in funding for the county because it is three months overdue with a required annual audit. The auditing firm hired by the county, KPMG, has said it cannot complete the audit until the county completes its inquiry into Hornsby's vendor dealings.

County school officials dispute KPMG's explanation, noting that the audit was late before the school board announced last month that it was going to hire an outside investigator to scrutinize Hornsby. That was announced shortly after the district concluded a cursory internal inquiry that cleared Hornsby.

Schools spokesman John White said yesterday that the withheld $10 million has not caused major problems for the district, which receives about $600 million a year from the state.

Others in the county note that the state is threatening to withhold another $10 million if the audit isn't completed soon. Because the county hasn't selected an investigator for the inquiry that KPMG is waiting on, the delay could drag on.

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