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Principal's Side Business Raises Questions . . .

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008

Montgomery school officials are looking into a consulting business run by the principal of Richard Montgomery High School after learning that the business was scheduled to have an event at the Rockville school.

Moreno Carrasco's home in Germantown is listed in corporate records as the address of Executive Coaching Services, a company he founded two years ago. The business offers workshops, Carrasco said, for principals who want to do their jobs more efficiently, improve achievement and spend more time in classrooms with teachers and students.

Most of the content on the company's Web site, http://www.savetheprincipal.com, was taken down last week after parent activists began questioning the ethics of Carrasco's firm. The site showed Breakthrough Principal Institutes scheduled on several dates when school is in session. One seminar was scheduled for April 29 at the Richard Montgomery campus during school hours. Registration fees range upward from $99, according to the site.

Brian Edwards, chief of staff to Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, said the business was brought to his attention Friday, when a reporter called to ask about it.

"We are conducting an investigation, and we will take appropriate actions as warranted," Edwards said. The school board's ethics policy "is clear," he said, "that you cannot have any outside employment that impinges on your duties as an employee . . . That doesn't mean that you cannot consult evenings, weekends, or take a day of leave."

Carrasco, 50, said he has followed that policy, taking leave time on the few occasions he has had consulting events on school days. He said that he has had events at his school, but that those were "coordinated through the central office" of the school system and offered free. He said the upcoming event at Richard Montgomery was to be free as well; the fee listed on the Internet site was incorrect.

"There have never been any seminars held for personal gains at our school," Carrasco said. He said he has declined invitations to train educators in distant locales, such as India, "because I care and respect my responsibilities as principal of Richard Montgomery High School."

An oft-decorated educator, Carrasco was named 2007 Principal of the Year for Maryland by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. He has been at Richard Montgomery since 2003. His school offers the premiere college-preparatory International Baccalaureate program.

Stephen Abrams, the school board member whose district includes Rockville, said the arrangement gives the appearance, at least, that Carrasco is engaging in private enterprise while drawing public pay.

"What's troubling to me is that it occurred during the time when the principal was suppose to be acting as principal," Abrams said.

The consulting business has been a topic of much discussion on the e-mail list of the political action committee Parents Coalition of Montgomery County, a clearinghouse for parental activism and outrage concerning the superintendent and school board.

Weast Taking Work Home

Some elected officials are questioning what went on in Superintendent Jerry D. Weast's home during a recent pair of meetings between the superintendent and labor leaders that included discussion of school board President Nancy Navarro's candidacy for the County Council.

County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) and others say they have been told that Weast called the meetings to lobby the unions to back Navarro (Northeastern County), who is running for the District 4 council seat left vacant by the death of Marilyn Praisner. Navarro attended the second meeting, as did County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who supports Navarro.

Weast has acknowledged that he discussed Navarro's candidacy in the meetings, on Feb. 29 and March 2 at his home. But he said the primary purpose of the gatherings was to discuss the school system's operating budget.

David Rodich, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 500, concurred with Weast, writing in an e-mail that "any comments made about the County Council race were purely incidental" to the larger budget discussion.

Not everyone agrees with this account.

"I had heard about this meeting from a number of other people, and it's always been characterized as a campaign meeting," said school board member Sharon W. Cox (At Large), referring to the second gathering.

Elrich is a former schoolteacher who supports one of Navarro's rivals for the District 4 seat, widower Don Praisner. Elrich said his main concern is that Weast might be pressuring the labor groups to support Navarro or risk losing his support in negotiating their labor agreements.

"If what was said was true, [Weast] was in a position to really strike a toll on the unions for not going along with him," Elrich said. "And that's not right."

The meetings, first reported in the Gazette newspapers, have sparked several threads of discussion.

If they were budget meetings, then why wasn't the school system's chief operating officer, Larry Bowers, included and other school board members invited? Cox said she has asked the board vice president, Shirley Brandman (At Large), to investigate.

If they were campaign meetings, then did Weast -- who serves as an appointed administrator, not an elected politician -- cross some ethical line?

When asked in an interview about his interest in the District 4 special election, Weast said, "It is important to have council members who are knowledgeable and supportive of what our teachers have been doing, and who understand how the finances work and take a long view on a countywide basis." He said labor groups should consider "the support of the children's agenda."

Edwards, Weast's chief of staff, noted that the unions representing Montgomery teachers, principals and school staff did not necessarily need Weast to tell them to support Navarro, whose stated interests align closely with their own.

"The reality is that Dr. Weast is going to do what he thinks is in the best interest of the kids, regardless of what his opponents say," Edwards said.

Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said he saw nothing untoward in Weast's support for Navarro. "Superintendents are allowed to have an opinion about their board presidents," he said.

Staff writers Lori Aratani and Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.

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