As investigators looked into alleged fraud in graduation rates in a Maryland suburb, they set up a confidential hotline and email address so employees and others could report grade tampering or other improprieties.
School system leaders in Prince George’s County didn’t make efforts to tell the district’s teachers and staff — and that is sparking debate as the investigation nears an end, with a final report expected by Oct. 31.
“It shouldn’t be hard for the average teacher to find investigators, and right now it is,” school board member David Murray said. “The hotline number should have been emailed out as soon as it was announced, and it should have been put up in every teachers lounge.”
State education officials released the hotline number and email address Sept. 18, about three weeks after announcing a firm had been hired to conduct an investigation. Murray and his board allies — a minority bloc — say most employees did not see the state’s September news release or the limited news coverage that resulted.
“The investigation will conclude in less than a month, and teachers have yet to receive an email from the superintendent or from the board chair — or from anyone — with the anonymous hotline information,” board member Edward Burroughs III said.
Asked about the lack of employee notification, school district officials said Tuesday they have cooperated fully with the D.C. firm conducting the examination, Alvarez & Marsal Public Sector Services.
“The system has been working with the auditor and following its directions,” said spokesman John White, who described the hotline information as well-publicized. “It is no secret.”
White also noted the Board of Education sent information about the hotline Monday through each board member’s listserv, which he said would reach “thousands of people in all corners” of the county.
The board’s minority bloc said the steps taken Monday do not go nearly far enough.
On Sept. 24, Murray wrote to Kevin Maxwell, the district’s chief executive, asking him to distribute tip line information districtwide “so that anyone with knowledge of wrongdoing is able to speak with investigators privately and confidentially.”
Maxwell did not agree to the request in an email response the next day. He said the district was fully cooperating with investigators and would comply with their requests, according to a copy of the email obtained by The Washington Post.
The county’s graduation rates gained attention several months ago after the board’s minority bloc wrote to Gov. Larry Hogan (R) with allegations of changed grades and altered credit counts. They alleged the district had engaged in “widespread systemic corruption” that inflated graduation rates since 2014.
They said whistleblowers had evidence hundreds of students graduated without meeting state requirements.
Hogan in turn asked the State Board of Education for a “complete, thorough and exhaustive” investigation, and on Aug. 29 the state announced the hiring of Alvarez & Marsal.
Maxwell has said on several occasions he welcomes the investigation and insisted no systemic effort existed to do anything improper. Prince George’s, the state’s second-largest system, has more than 20,000 employees.
School board member Raaheela Ahmed said she was hoping to get the word out about the hotline Sept. 28 when she sought to send an email bearing the hotline number through the individual board listservs of the three members of the minority’s bloc.
That effort was rejected by school board Chairman Segun C. Eubanks, according to a copy of the email exchange.
“Any such communication can only be a joint communication from the full board,” Eubanks wrote Sept. 29, saying Ahmed and others could use their own “communications list” and “their own time” to share the message.
Late Monday afternoon, the full board emailed a notice of the hotline and email address through its member listservs.
Eubanks said in an interview Tuesday the timing had nothing to do with media inquiries and followed consideration by board leaders.
As for whether all employees needed to be informed, he said: “Whatever the investigators ask for and say they need, we’ve committed to supporting them.”
Ahmed said she was “thoroughly surprised” by the Monday message and remains concerned because “a huge group” of employees are still unaware of how to report problems. “It’s a good start, but it really needs to go out to all employees,” she said.
Several employees interviewed by The Washington Post late Monday and Tuesday said they never received information about the hotline or procedures for reporting potential improprieties.
“There has been nothing,” one teacher said, noting she saw the tip line posted on a parents’ website and told colleagues about it.