Two Maryland lawmakers are calling for a state legislative audit of all vendor contracts awarded by the Prince George's County school system.
Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, and Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's) said the review is necessary because of recent questions about whether schools chief Andre J. Hornsby has been given too much autonomy in contracting decisions.
The request for an audit came as Hubbard and other critics of Hornsby have raised questions about the school system's decision to do business with a construction management company that employs one of Hornsby's former top deputies in Yonkers, N.Y.
In January, Prince George's school officials hired Facility Planners Group Inc. to manage a project to add air conditioning units to 51 schools over two years. The New York-based group, which opened an office in Maryland recently, introduced itself to the school district through C. James Grosso, who had worked for Hornsby. Before coming to Prince George's last year, Hornsby was superintendent of Yonkers schools from August 1998 until June 2000.
Grosso was laid off from his job in Yonkers in February 2003 after he spent 30 years as a well-respected administrator overseeing construction, busing and the care of facilities and school grounds. Grosso did not return several messages left at his offices and home yesterday.
Larry Pauling, director of operations and maintenance for the school system, said he chose Grosso's company to manage the air conditioning project after Grosso wrote a letter to Hornsby offering his services. Pauling said Hornsby passed the letter on to his deputies but did not urge them to hire the company.
"He didn't tell me to hire these guys," Pauling said. "It's plain and simple."
Pauling said he received the letter at a time when he was searching for a manager for the air conditioning project, which officials wanted to expedite. "I didn't have the manpower here to manage the whole program," he said.
Pauling said he considered several other companies before settling on the one that employs Grosso, and he decided on Facility Planners Group because he believed it was the cheapest and most qualified for the job. Under state law, school systems are not required to seek competitive bids for such professional services as construction management and engineering.
In a Sept. 11, 2003, letter to the school system, a company official said it would charge $375,000 for the two years' worth of work that includes reviewing plans for the project as well as bids from subcontractors. Pauling said the company -- which was incorporated in August 2003 in White Plains, according to New York state records -- has done stellar work for the school system.
"They did above and beyond what we expected," Pauling said. "We did in 10 months what other people have done in two years."
But officials, including Hubbard and County Council member David Harrington (D-Bladensburg), said they are worried that it might appear that Grosso's company had an edge because of his ties to Hornsby. "It doesn't sit well," Hubbard said. On the surface, Harrington said, it appears as though the school board has "given [Hornsby] carte blanche" in making purchasing decisions.
The Maryland state prosecutor's office and the county school board's ethics panel, meanwhile, have opened inquiries into a 10-day trip to South Africa that Hornsby accepted last year from an educational software company that does business with the school district. Minnesota-based Plato Learning paid for Hornsby's trip in July 2003 when he was president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators.
Hornsby also has acknowledged that he was directly involved in the school system's purchase of nearly $1 million of software and other teaching tools from California-based LeapFrog SchoolHouse. Hornsby lives with Sienna Owens, who sells LeapFrog products to schools in Virginia. Those purchases, in June, are the subject of an investigation by the school board's ethics panel.
Hornsby declined to comment through his spokeswoman yesterday. In an interview this month, he said the decisions to do business with Plato Learning and LeapFrog were not influenced by personal factors, and he pointed out that Prince George's schools had done business with those firms prior to his arrival.
Staff writers David S. Fallis and Ovetta Wiggins and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.