Three top elected officials in Prince George's County yesterday voiced support for the Board of Education's decision to pay outgoing county schools chief Andre J. Hornsby $125,000 to facilitate his resignation. But one school board member broke ranks and publicly criticized the deal.
Debate about Hornsby's severance package has developed since the schools chief resigned halfway through a four-year contract at the helm of the school system, Maryland's second-largest. The school board approved the negotiated resignation Friday evening in a quickly convened closed meeting at school headquarters in Upper Marlboro.
Critics said the package unfairly rewarded a man who is under FBI investigation and is the subject of an independent ethics report that the school board is scheduled to receive this week. Proponents said the payout, equivalent to half Hornsby's annual salary, in accordance with a clause in his contract, will enable the school system to make a clean break and escape the threat of litigation.
"I don't have a problem with the severance," County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said in an interview. "It's really a small price to now allow people to talk about education again."
U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) and County Council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville), who appeared with Johnson at a news conference on an unrelated matter outside the Largo Town Center Metro station, agreed.
"I think the board managed it well," Wynn said. "We're avoiding any lengthy litigation, a long period of indecision. If we had to litigate, it would have been much more expensive."
"I really don't have a problem" with the severance, Dean said. He said the school board appeared to be adhering to Hornsby's contract.
Several school board members have defended the severance payment in recent days. But board member Judy Mickens-Murray (Upper Marlboro) said she voted against it in the closed-door session. "It's very difficult for me to [give] what I perceive to be a reward to anyone for what I perceive to be the creation of a challenge for an institution," Mickens-Murray said.
Mickens-Murray noted that the board was days away from receiving a report from Huron Consulting Group Inc. on the schools chief's handling of a controversial $1 million contract for educational software and other technology in an early-reading initiative for disadvantaged schoolchildren.
Huron was hired by the board to look at that contract, among others, after reports emerged that the school system had awarded the $1 million deal to LeapFrog SchoolHouse of Emeryville, Calif., while Hornsby was living with a company saleswoman.
"I was hoping we could wait a week or two to see what was in the [Huron] report," Mickens-Murray said.
The FBI also is looking into the LeapFrog contract and other matters related to Hornsby's handling of federal funds. That probe also had worried board members. Hornsby has denied wrongdoing.
Mickens-Murray, the lone board member to oppose Hornsby's appointment in 2003, is also the only one to publicly express reservations about the severance agreement. Members did not reveal the vote tally, but the margin for the severance package was described as lopsided.
The school board also named veteran human resources administrator Howard Burnett as interim schools chief. Burnett has attended high school graduation ceremonies this week and met with key staff members. Tonight, he will advise the board in a budget workshop.
Board members and others familiar with Hornsby's severance agreement have described its contents in interviews, but as of yesterday evening, the school system had not provided a copy of the document in response to a request from The Washington Post. The school system's legal officer, Shauna Garlington Battle, said school officials did not yet have a final draft.
According to the interviews, the deal began to take shape about a week ago. Timothy F. Maloney, a former state lawmaker, was the attorney for the school board, and Isaac Marks, of a law firm based in Calverton, represented Hornsby. In addition to the $125,000 payment, to be made when his resignation becomes effective June 30, Hornsby will receive extended medical and dental benefits. School board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) said the benefits would continue for a year.
Through the negotiations, Hornsby also was granted two days to review the Huron report and prepare a response before the board makes it public.
Hornsby, who has kept his personal telephone numbers private, has not responded to requests for comment via e-mail since his resignation. He reportedly left town late last week for a vacation in the Bahamas. Marks said he could not discuss his client's whereabouts.
Marks said he expected that state testing data due to be released next week would cast a positive light on Hornsby's tenure. "When the dust settles, it will be determined that he's a results-oriented person," Marks said. "I think he will be vindicated by the test scores, to some measure. He was certainly on the right path, and that sometimes gets lost in this whole discussion."
Some observers in Prince George's were nonetheless skeptical of the severance agreement. Kelly Canavan, an English teacher at Croom High School in Upper Marlboro, wrote in an e-mail to The Post: "I approach this job like my life depends on it, but it would take me three years to make as much money as it took [Hornsby] to make in about ten minutes when he quit being my boss."