Two legislators said yesterday they will seek to tighten ethics rules for Maryland school officials after Prince George's County schools chief Andre J. Hornsby approved buying nearly $1 million in educational products from a California company that employs a woman who lives with him.
State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's) and Del. James Hubbard (D-Prince George's) said they will introduce legislation that would require all Board of Education members and superintendents -- and any other school officials with authority to award contracts -- to file financial disclosure and ethics forms every year with the state Board of Ethics.
The Baltimore Sun reported yesterday that Hornsby, 51, lives in Mitchellville with Sienna Owens, a 26-year-old saleswoman for LeapFrog SchoolHouse, the company that sold software and other teaching tools to the Prince George's district in June. Hornsby did not disclose his relationship with Owens, who the company said sells products only in Virginia.
"It's the public's money and we all want to have total confidence it's being spent the best possible way without any kind of conflict of interest," Pinsky said.
Hornsby declined to discuss his relationship with Owens yesterday, saying only that "everything I do is in the best interests of this county, and everything is where it should have been -- aboveboard."
Prince George's schools have done business with LeapFrog since 2002, a year before Hornsby was hired to be the chief executive, according to records. In June, however, Hornsby oversaw the purchase, with federal Title I funds for low-income students, of LeapPads, which are laptop-like teaching tools. The purchase included software teachers use to track students' progress.
Hornsby made the decision to buy the products after consulting with his curriculum and testing departments and after the software was deemed effective in a trial , said Leroy Tompkins, the school district's chief accountability officer.
School board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) said yesterday that she has asked the district's ethics panel to look into the matter. Still, Tignor said she did not believe Hornsby's actions were influenced by his relationship with Owens.
"Since she wasn't working in Prince George's County or even in the state of Maryland, I do not see an impropriety," Tignor said.
Cherie Stewart, a LeapFrog spokeswoman, said the company's Maryland sales representative, Debora Adam, handled the sale to Prince George's. In an e-mail response to questions, Stewart said the company would investigate the matter because it is "concerned about any potential conflict of interest, including the appearance of impropriety."
The school system's conflict of interest policy says that school board members, officials and employees cannot "hold any outside employment relationship that would impair their impartiality or independence of judgment."
It also states that officials and employees cannot "solicit any gift or accept gifts of greater than $25 in value from any person who is under the authority of the school system or who has or is negotiating a contract with the school system, except where such gifts would not present a conflict of interest . . . "
School system officials are required to fill out ethics forms every year. On Hornsby's form, filed Jan. 31, he was asked: "Is your spouse or any member of your immediate family employed by or affiliated in any manner with a business entity or person doing business with the Board of Education?" He answered no.
A school spokeswoman said that Hornsby did not have to disclose his relationship with Owens on the form because she was not employed by LeapFrog at the time.
Hornsby also was asked on the form if he received any gifts valued at more than $25 during the previous year from anyone who has a contract with the school system. Again, he responded no, but did report that "in my previous position as past president of [the National Alliance of Black School Educators] I had professional relationship with many of the companies that do business" with Prince George's schools.
When Hornsby traveled to South Africa in July 2003 on a trip organized by the National Alliance of Black School Educators, the expenses were paid for by Plato Learning, a Minnesota-based company that the Prince George's school system is considering for a contract. The details of that trip were first reported by the Baltimore Sun.
Hornsby, who started work in Prince George's in June 2003, said he had notified the school board about the South Africa trip. This is not the first time Hornsby has run into ethics controversy. As superintendent of the Yonkers, N.Y., school system, questions arose about a trip he took in 1999 to a golf tournament that was paid for by Xerox, which was bidding for a contract with the school system, officials in Yonkers said. He was not disciplined for taking that trip.
Some Prince George's County Council members said yesterday that they, too, are concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest in Hornsby's role in the LeapFrog purchase.
"This should not be ignored, or pushed to the side," said council member David Harrington (D-Bladensburg).
Staff writers Ovetta Wiggins and Nurith C. Aizenman and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.