FBI agents questioned Prince George's County school staff members and seized records in two administration buildings yesterday in connection with an investigation of schools chief Andre J. Hornsby, a development that intensifies scrutiny of the leader of the state's second-largest school system.
School system spokesman John White and Board of Education Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) disclosed the surprise FBI visit early yesterday evening, several hours after agents arrived at school headquarters in Upper Marlboro and a building in Landover to question Hornsby's staff.
Andre J. Hornsby, Prince George's County schools chief, is under investigation over a potential conflict of interest in approving a major software contract.
(James A. Parcell - The Washington Post)
The FBI visit sent tremors through a school system that serves 136,000 students. The school board and Hornsby have sought in recent years to quell political turmoil, reshape staff and curriculum and focus on improving test scores. They have scored some gains but earned mixed reviews, with Hornsby attracting criticism for a hard-charging, no-apologies leadership style.
Yesterday, the school system referred questions about the inquiry to a spokesman for the FBI in Baltimore. That spokesman, FBI Special Agent Barry Maddox, declined to comment.
Hornsby, 51, has been the focus of a federal inquiry since at least late last year after the revelation that he had overseen the purchase of about $1 million in software and other products from LeapFrog SchoolHouse while living with a saleswoman for the Emeryville, Calif., company. He did not disclose the relationship with the saleswoman to the school board before the deal was made. Subsequently, he denied wrongdoing and said he had acted only to obtain the latest technology to help students master basic skills.
The school system did not publicly discuss the subject of yesterday's questioning and records search. However, a source directly familiar with the search, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said agents appeared to focus on information related to LeapFrog and other matters.
The source said agents had two search warrants and combed through computer files, including those on Hornsby's office computer, in addition to questioning at least two school system employees, one at each site. About a half-dozen agents were in Upper Marlboro, the source said, and more at the Bonnie F. Johns Educational Media Center in Landover, starting about 9 a.m.
"They were there all day long," the source said.
Tignor and White said they did not know whether any employees had been given subpoenas to appear before a grand jury. White said the FBI visit was the first since Hornsby took office in June 2003.
The schools chief was traveling yesterday as the school system announced the FBI visit, White and Tignor said. He had been attending an educational leadership conference in San Diego with four school board members.
Hornsby did not issue an immediate public comment on the FBI visit through his aides. White said he believes that Hornsby has a private attorney, but he did not know the lawyer's name.
White said Shauna Garlington Battle, the school system's legal officer, spoke with agents at headquarters. Another attorney from a law firm under contract with the school board also was present.
Tignor said Hornsby got word of the FBI visit from his staff soon after agents arrived at his office. Hornsby called the board chairman shortly before 10 a.m. EST to relay the development.
"I said, 'Do you know what this is about?' " Tignor recalled yesterday evening in a telephone interview. "He said, 'Absolutely not.' "
Tignor said the nine-member school board would convene as soon as possible to discuss the matter, probably tomorrow.
"Anytime the FBI's involved, you always take it seriously," Tignor said. She added: "This is a challenge."
The school board has been a focus of public attention. Its members were appointed by the governor and county executive in 2002 after the state abolished an elected board widely viewed as dysfunctional. The caretaker board is scheduled to give way to a new panel after elections next year.
The latest development in the investigation of Hornsby comes as the school system -- second largest in Maryland after Montgomery County's -- faces complex fiscal and educational challenges. An audit of the school system's 2004 finances, which was due last fall, is not complete, and the state is withholding tens of millions of dollars in funding until that matter is resolved. The school board fired its first auditor in February and replaced it with one that is expected to finish work by the end of May. Separately, the board has hired a consultant to review purchasing and contracting under Hornsby.
Meanwhile, Hornsby this year has set in motion systemwide curriculum changes -- including a back-to-basics focus on reading and mathematics -- that he hopes will raise student achievement in a system that ranks among the lowest in the state on standardized tests. The state has rated 73 of the system's 196 schools as needing improvement. Several are in advanced stages of corrective action.
Hornsby led the Yonkers, N.Y., school system -- he was fired amid controversy -- before he came to Prince George's. His blunt style was considered an asset by a school board that sought a dynamic leader to drive improvements.
Staff writers Ovetta Wiggins and Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.