The Education Leaders Council, which has sought to position itself as a prominent national advocate for school choice and accountability, has been dealt a major blow by the resignations of several members of its board of directors amid claims of mismanagement leveled at its Washington headquarters.
Four board members—all well-known figures in education policy—quit last week, citing concerns raised over the past year about the group’s use of federal money and about the salaries and employment terms of its executives.
In a joint letter dated March 29 to Florida Commissioner of Education Jim Horne, who chairs the ELC board, they accused others still on the board of failing to adequately address their concerns.
“We cannot continue to be associated with an entity that has lost its moorings and whose credibility has been seriously damaged by issues that could have been solved had action been taken in a timely and responsible manner,” they wrote.
The four members who resigned are former U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the retired chairman of the House of Representatives’ education committee; Colorado Commissioner of Education William J. Moloney; Minnesota Commissioner of Education Cheri Pierson Yecke; and Abigail Thernstrom, an author and a member of the Massachusetts state board of education.
Their departures follow those of at least four other ELC board members who resigned over the past six months as the board of directors became increasingly divided over how to respond to questions about the organization’s operations. (“Leaders Group Faces Shortcomings,” Jan. 21, 2004.) The board now has just eight members.
Those remaining, including ELC Chief Executive Officer Lisa Graham Keegan, disputed claims that the group had sought to sweep any problems under the rug.
In February, the board agreed to hire an external auditor to carry out a “forensic” review of its operations, and Ms. Keegan characterized as “dishonest” the claims made by the four board members who resigned last week.
“These individuals didn’t want to solve the problems; they wanted to proclaim that there is a problem and that nothing has been done,” Ms. Keegan said in an interview. “That is blatantly untrue.”
Shift in Focus Claimed
Strife among the members of the ELC board had been mounting since last May, when an audit of the organization raised what some board members saw as a number of red flags.
The report said the group hadn’t been adequately reporting time spent by ELC staff members on its biggest project, Following the Leaders, which is underwritten by $23.5 million in federal money. The money has been used to hire subcontractors to carry out the initiative, which gives technical support to schools to help them in meeting the student- performance requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Since then, board members have sparred over numerous other management issues, particularly related to Ms. Keegan’s leadership. With a salary of $235,000, she is officially an independent consultant and lives in Arizona, where she formerly served as the state schools chief.
Many of those who have recently left the board argue that the ELC has become too dependent on federal money. When she became the CEO in 2001, Ms. Keegan laid out ambitious plans to raise private funds, but federal grants paid for more than half of all salaries paid to the ELC’s 14 staff members last year. Most of the federal funding is for overseeing the Following the Leaders project.
“The focus of the organization has moved away from its original mission of advocacy for reform, and been transformed essentially into a manager of a federal program,” Mr. Moloney said in an interview last week. “That program, Following the Leaders, has become the main financial prop of ELC. It pays the rent, it pays the salaries.”
Along with support for high academic standards, a founding principle of the ELC was that federal involvement in local education policy should be limited. One of its early members, Eugene W. Hickok, a former Pennsylvania secretary of education, is now the acting No. 2 official in the U.S. Department of Education.
Officials with the Education Department said last week they continued to be satisfied with the ELC’s work. Although the council got the bulk of the money for Following the Leaders in two congressional “earmarks” of $10 million each, the department is responsible for monitoring the grant.
But Michael J. Petrilli, an associate deputy undersecretary, said the department has raised questions with the ELC about the potential for conflicts of interest, given that Ms. Keegan is employed as a consultant while also serving on the board of directors.
The organization has told the department that it plans to adopt new bylaws to address the issue.
Others who have resigned from the board in recent months have offered varied reasons. Some agreed that the ELC had strayed from its mission, while others said they didn’t have enough time to devote to the council.
The defections leave Florida’s Mr. Horne as the lone state schools chief on the board of the ELC, which was founded in 1995 by a group of conservative-leaning state education officials as an alternative to the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers.
Mr. Horne, the board chairman, agreed with the contention that the ELC needs to shift more of its energies back to advocacy, and he said he hopes to spin off Following the Leaders as an independent project in the near future.
But he maintains that the council is getting its house in order. It is in negotiations with an accounting firm to carry out the forensic review. The group also recently hired a new chief financial officer. And Mr. Horne said he had “unwavering confidence” in Ms. Keegan’s leadership.
“I think ELC will come through whatever this little fog is stronger, and better, and more powerful than ever before,” he said.