The fallout from a federal criminal investigation of Prince George's County schools chief Andre J. Hornsby has jolted a school system that can ill afford another bout of instability.
Nearly two years after Hornsby took over from another embattled schools chief -- and three years after the state abolished a controversy-marred elected school board -- county leaders said yesterday that they are unsettled by the reemergence of turmoil atop Maryland's second-largest school system.
Hornsby at a meeting in March. Of the probe, school board chief Beatrice P. Tignor said: "We need some facts."
(Rafael Crisostomo For The Washington Post)
"The Prince George's County Council is greatly concerned about the impact of the ongoing federal probe focusing on alleged activities of" Hornsby, council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) said in a statement. "Any adverse impact this situation imposes on our government or our citizens, especially our children, is regrettable."
Hornsby returned to work yesterday in Upper Marlboro, one day after FBI agents entered his office and another school building to seize records and question staff members about his dealings with an educational software vendor and other management activities. The FBI's surprise action Tuesday came while Hornsby was traveling home from school business in San Diego.
Hornsby declined through a school system spokesman to comment on the matter.
Instead, he prepared in private for a crucial Board of Education meeting today about the investigation. Most of the nine school board members have supported Hornsby since he took over the system in June 2003. Now, they are scrambling for information, weighing whether to stay the course with a school leader who has ignited controversy but also pushed staff and curriculum changes meant to boost student test scores.
"I don't want you to suggest I'm not a supporter [of Hornsby's] today -- or that I am," said board member Charlene M. Dukes (Glenn Dale). "I certainly want to understand what's happening."
Said board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro): "We need some facts. We have nothing to go on." If the board finds that Hornsby has committed an impropriety, Tignor said, he would be treated "like any other employee." She said that meant he could be put on administrative leave or forced out.
Under Hornsby's four-year contract, which expires June 30, 2007, his annual base salary is $250,000 a year. One clause in the contract allows the school board to sever his employment with a buyout worth half his annual salary.
The school system declined yesterday to release information from the FBI search warrants until after tonight's board meeting.
Hornsby's suddenly precarious position has injected fresh uncertainty into the leadership of the 136,000-student system. A caretaker school board, appointed in 2002 by the governor and county executive, is to give way next year to an elected board.
In addition, the system has reported the highest student transience rate in the state and is known for high turnover among teachers, principals and other staff members.
Some county leaders said they are anxious to avoid further turnover at the top after the departure of schools chief Iris T. Metts in 2003.
"It's in our interest for him to succeed," said County Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton). "We need to get past this business of changing superintendents every couple years."
One issue in the federal investigation is a $1 million purchase of educational software and other equipment from LeapFrog SchoolHouse, a division of LeapFrog Enterprises Inc. of Emeryville, Calif. Hornsby did not disclose at the time that he lived with a company saleswoman. He later denied wrongdoing.
Cherie Stewart, a LeapFrog spokeswoman, said the company has cooperated with the FBI. She said, however, that agents had not visited the company offices and that LeapFrog was not a target of the investigation.
Barry Maddox, an FBI spokesman in Baltimore, declined to comment yesterday.
In county political circles, there was wide agreement that the federal probe had bruised the image of the school system.
"It's unfortunate that the Hornsby controversy has undermined the hard work that's been done by the school board, teachers and students this year," said U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.). He cautioned against judging Hornsby too soon but added, "If he's charged, he should be suspended."
Business leaders lamented the developments at a meeting in Lanham of the Prince George's Business-Education Alliance, a school advocacy group that includes senior business executives. But alliance Executive Director David R. Merkowitz said Hornsby's support appeared to be holding. "This district needs some stability and some clear direction," he said.
Until now, Hornsby has had solid backing from the nine-member school board. He was hired on an 8 to 1 vote in 2003. The lone dissenter, Judy Mickens-Murray (Upper Marlboro), said yesterday that the board should gather facts and proceed cautiously. Board member Jose Morales (Greenbelt) said he was still backing Hornsby.
Board members John R. Bailer (Camp Springs), Abby L.W. Crowley (Greenbelt), Robert O. Duncan (Laurel), Dean Sirjue (Bowie) and Howard W. Stone Jr. (Mitchellville) could not be reached for comment.
Because the Prince George's system is under state scrutiny, Hornsby's fate could be influenced as well by other leaders, such as County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. Neither would comment yesterday on possible damage done to Hornsby's viability as a leader.
Staff writers Nancy Trejos, Ovetta Wiggins, Eric Rich and Ruben Castaneda contributed to this report.