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Hairston must give answers

Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston apparently believes he is unaccountable to anyone. When questions arose about the propriety of the district's decision to require all teachers to use a grading system from which one of his top deputies might one day profit, he skipped one meeting with concerned legislators and dodged questions at another. Now he's refused to speak with an investigator from the attorney general's office who was seeking answers to such basic questions as whether the deputy really should hold the copyright to the grading system and whether the district's decision in December to mandate the system's use (since rescinded) amounted to a conflict of interest. The school board has failed to force Mr. Hairston to account publicly for his decisions, and if it won't, the elected officials who hold the district's purse strings need to make sure he does.

The Articulated Instruction Module, or AIM, was developed over the course of two decades by Barbara Dezmon, who was one of Mr. Hairston's chief deputies. She and Mr. Hairston say the work was done in her spare time and that it is her intellectual property. In December, while Mr. Hairston was out for knee surgery, the district issued an emergency directive from his office mandating that the system be used in every school, beginning the next month. Teachers staged a revolt, objecting that the system was redundant and would force them to enter tens of thousands of keystrokes, taking away from the time they might spend on actual instruction. In January, Mr. Hairston rescinded the order, and Ms. Dezmon later retired.

But it's still important for the public to get answers about what happened because the situation poses real questions about conflicts of interest that Mr. Hairston has never publicly accounted for. Based on what the investigator from the attorney general's office was able to discern, it is unclear whether Ms. Dezmon should hold the full copyright to the material, in particular to the source code for the computerized version. But even if we accept Mr. Hairston's and Ms. Dezmon's version of events, there is still a huge potential conflict of interest in the system's decision to use AIM at all, much less to mandate its use.

Ms. Dezmon was not charging Baltimore County for the use of the program, and she had offered it to other superintendents in the state for free. But she did hold out the possibility that she could sell it in other states. Thus, the district's decision to use it had real potential economic value for Ms. Dezmon — it would be much easier to market it elsewhere if it had been used in one of the nation's largest districts. Baltimore County's students and teachers were, effectively, to be her unpaid test subjects.

The attorney general's office doesn't have subpoena power for an investigation like this one, so it can't force Mr. Hairston to answer questions. The school board can, but it has shown little inclination to challenge Mr. Hairston on this or any other matter. It played no role in the decision to use AIM and didn't hold Mr. Hairston accountable after the fact. At a legislative hearing in February, the board president, JoAnn C. Murphy, said AIM "was not a curriculum [issue] so it was not something we would have voted on." Perhaps so, but Mr. Hairston's job is.

Even if there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for Mr. Hairston's and Ms. Dezmon's actions, the way they have responded to inquiries should set off alarm bells about the way the school system conducts business. Not only does Mr. Hairston apparently not believe the public and the legislature are entitled to answers, but Ms. Dezmon actually compared an inquiry from the attorney general's office to a lynching — suggesting that a call for accountability for the performance of the public's business was equivalent to the actions of the KKK.

Ms. Dezmon doesn't work for the county anymore, so perhaps she doesn't owe the public anything. But Mr. Hairston does. If the school board won't hold him accountable, it's time for the county executive and council — the people who approve his budget — to step in. Perhaps they will be able to remind him of who he works for.

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