Markets Opinion

The Seamy Side of School Purchasing - and Superintendent Power

October 27, 2007 3 min read
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One of the greatest barriers to the purchase of my firm’s RFP service, K-12Leads and Youth Service Markets Report, by small and medium-sized school improvement providers is the perception that the system is rigged. Many firm leaders believe that the best contracts are not put out to bid, and that those put out to bid are written and released for some favored provider.

Many of my potential customers would tell you it’s all about who the superintendent favors. There’s enough evidence out there to make reasonable people worry that what’s being said amounts to more than “sour grapes.”

At the district level, the perception of corruption is being reinforced by the federal prosecution of Andre Hornsby, former superintendent of Prince Georges County, Maryland and Yonkers, New York. Among other things, Hornsby is alleged to have received a kickback on a commission his then live-in girlfriend, a sales representative for Leapfrog Schoolhouse, split with another sales person whose territory included Hornsby’s district.

Georgia schools Chief Linda Schrenko’s money laundering scheme tarnishes state agencies.

The role of the Department of Education’s leadership and staff in the federal Reading First scandal put the ugly icing on a bad-tasting cake. (See more below.)

Today, public school corruption is actually a priority of the FBI.

What’s important about the Hornsby case and others including - to list just a few - Ravenswood and Manhattan Beach, California; Memphis, Dallas, and El Paso, Texas, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and Long Island, New York is that these are not cases of the central office run amok. These are examples of the Sicilian saying - “a fish rots from the head.” They are about the people we hire to run school districts.

Two points to consider:

• Before making public employees “at-will” employees in places like DC, and giving the superintendent the authority to hire and fire on his or her own view of performance - bypassing civil service protections, take a close look at these cases and ask yourself whether the superintendents under the gun would have been likely to abuse that power.

• The procurement process in public education deserves a much closer look at the federal, state and local levels. It defines the saying “an accident waiting to happen.” What we have today can’t possibly be the best we can manage. We should expect state legislatures and local school boards to clean up this act. The idea that school improvement program purchases would be based on anything but value; i.e. results at a price, is simply disgusting.

Additional Reading:

This is an area that deserves a lot more attention from the media, eduwonks, educators and the public. Some of my own postings offer jumping off points for more research.

I wrote a commentary on the general subject for Education Week last December. Reader reactions can be found here.

When we hire superintendents, do we intend to give them carte blanche when it comes to the purchase of educational programs? I’m afraid most school boards do; and it’s a policy that sends the wrong message to district’s educators when we are talking about the need for a data-driven culture in public education. Duval County, Florida offers an example of how district procurement practices driven by the superintendent discretionary (arbitrary?) preferences start us down a slippery slope to corruption.

My take on procurement practices in education technology, originally in Education Next.

Some of my take on the Reading First mess starting here.

I discuss the relationship between procurement practices and current k-12 industry structure here.

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