A similar, but actual, not hypothetical, situation has recently come to light on the Cobb school board. That’s where Post 6 school board member (and former chairman) Scott Sweeney has quietly been working as a paid consultant since last year for one of the world’s biggest educational technology companies, Promethean Ltd.
Sweeney mentioned his new boss to his fellow board members and other school brass, but never said anything about it to the public — to those who put him in office to represent them.
Sweeney’s new employment arrangement clearly is a conflict of interest waiting to happen, even though he has promised not to vote on any Promethean-related measures that come before the board. The matter has become an issue in his re-election campaign. He faces a strenuous challenge from Kevin Nicholas in the May 20 GOP Primary.
There are more questions than answers at this point about the Sweeney/Promethean connection, including:
• Why would Promethean hire Sweeney as a consultant, considering his professional background is in financial services and commercial real estate?
• Why would Sweeney fail to list his new job/employer on his financial disclosure sheet?
• Yes, Sweeney told the board members and select administrators about his deal with Promethean, but when, if ever, was he planning to tell the public? He’s had plenty of opportunities to do so. His decision instead to keep his deal on the “down-low” is telling.
• Sweeney says his employment contract with Promethean stipulates it is to remain private. But considering what’s at stake, does he plan to ask Promethean for permission to make it public? And if not, why not?
• Is it good for the system as a whole, and especially for the residents of his district, to have a representative who must abstain from voting and discussion on crucial, big-dollar decisions? Voters elect officials to represent them, not sit on the sidelines.
• Does Sweeney’s pledge to abstain from voting pertain just to Promethean? Or does he also plan to abstain from votes involving Promethean’s competitors? Their loss could be Promethean’s gain, and vice-versa.
• How are constituents supposed to tell when Sweeney is representing them and when he is representing Promethean?
• Does Sweeney plan to recuse himself from any discussion of matters involving Promethean and its competitors, or just abstain from voting? After all, from Promethean’s perspective, being able to count on Sweeney’s vote is important, but having a board member in a position to lobby the others on its behalf is just as key. It’s all about access. And the answer to this question probably brings us back to Question One above.
OTHER, EQUALLY SERIOUS QUESTIONS have come up regarding the Cobb Schools Foundation, the non-profit fundraising arm of the CSD.
School Board Chairwoman Kathleen Angelucci and her predecessor, vice chair Randy Scamihorn, who served as board chairman last year, say it was only weeks ago that they learned the board chair is also an ex officio member of the Cobb Schools Foundation board. We know of no reason to believe they are not being truthful.
Why would CSF leaders make little or no apparent effort to involve the school board chair, or at least update her or him on a regular basis? Why would they, by Angelucci’s account, not invite her to meetings or share their minutes with her? Do they see themselves as independent of the school board? Do they have a different agenda than the board?
It also turns out Promethean has a very heavy presence on the Cobb Schools Foundation board. Board member Jim Marshall is president and CEO of Promethean’s U.S. operations, which are headquartered in Atlanta. And the CSF’s one full-time employee (on the district’s payroll) is Sheri Brante, whose husband, Morten Brante, is senior vice president of services for Promethean. She says her husband did not go to work for Promethean until after she was already working for the Foundation, and says it is not a conflict of interest. Others likely see it otherwise.
One can argue that the Promethean/CSF relationship is beneficial to both parties. The CSF’s job is to raise money, and who better to hit up than one of the world’s leading education technology companies in metro Atlanta’s own backyard? And from Promethean’s perspective, it behooves it to build its relationship with Cobb school leaders because the Cobb system is essentially virgin territory as far as Promethean is concerned. Cobb has bought only $1.3 million in Promethean products in the past four years. However, if it were to equip each classroom with one of Promethean’s white boards, the contract would likely top $20 million.
THE PROMETHEAN PRESENCE on the CSF has already paid it one benefit: Sweeney told the MDJ that Marshall was his initial contact in the process of getting his new job consulting for Promethean. Did Marshall “recruit” Sweeney? Or did Sweeney tantalize Marshall with hints that, as a board member, he would have innumerable opportunities to lobby for the company’s products, even if he could not vote on them? As late Marietta Mayor Joe Mack Wilson once said about a local official in a similar situation, “You can abstain all night if you already know how the vote’s going to go.”
The Sweeney episode also has brought to light the fact that the Schools Foundation is spending what it raises almost faster than it can raise it. The district pays the CSF $136,000, Scamihorn says, but the foundation only raises between $150,000 and $175,000 per year for the district. Looked at another way, if Scamihorn’s figures are correct, that would mean by the time all the accounting is done, only between about 10 cents and 28 cents of each dollar the Foundation raises actually go toward their intended purpose.
ANGELUCCI and Scamihorn have “requested” a meeting with Foundation Chair Dr. John Crooks, Sheri Brante and School Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa today in hopes of getting some answers regarding the Foundation. We hope it proves fruitful.
Those who run the Foundation are good people, without doubt. But the “optics” of the present arrangement are troubling, to say the least.
Many questions remain regarding Sweeney, Promethean and the Cobb School District — and we hope answers are forthcoming soon.