- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

Directors of the pro-Bush Education Leaders Council have asked for an independent audit of the group’s finances over concerns that one or more of their subcontractors made cash contributions to keep the council afloat.

Achievement Technologies and the Princeton Review are the two subcontractors in question, which are responsible for a $23.5-million federally funded school technology program called Following the Leaders (FTL). FTL is a computerized school instructional system that permits teachers to track students’ achievement in every subject, according to state standards.

Four directors of the Education Leaders Council (ELC) expressed worries that subcontractors have made inappropriate contributions to keep the council financially viable. They believe such contributions would amount to “kickbacks,” and intend to resign unless “a forensic audit” is done immediately to appease their concerns, William J. Moloney, Colorado’s education commissioner and spokesman for the four directors, told The Washington Times.

Another condition for the directors to remain on the council’s 12-member board is that the organization stops depending on federal money and the congressionally funded FTL school program.

The ELC’s current chairman, Jim Horne, Florida’s education commissioner, wants to “revert ELC to an advocacy organization” for real education reform, Mr. Moloney, the ELC’s former chairman, said.

Other directors involved in the revolt are William F. Goodling, former 13-term Republican congressman from Pennsylvania and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee; Abigail Thernstrom, member of the Massachusetts state board of education and Bush-appointed member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission; and Cheri Pierson Yecke, Minnesota’s education commissioner.

If the group resigns, their departure will leave the pro-reform ELC, which touts itself as an alternative to the establishment-oriented Council of Chief State School Officers, with just two of the nation’s state education chiefs — Mr. Horne and Henry L. Johnson of Mississippi.

The four directors have objected to a $120,000 retainer given last fall to former Tennessee education commissioner and fellow board member Faye Taylor to coordinate the FTL program. They say Lisa Graham Keegan, ELC’s chief executive officer, gave Mrs. Taylor the retainer and also suddenly canceled an FTL project-evaluation contract in December with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute of Washington, both without board approval.

The complaining ELC directors also want Mrs. Keegan to step down from the board and be removed from management responsibilities under her current $235,000 yearly automatically renewable consultant contract, which was questioned by the ELC’s auditing firm last May. They believe she is more effective as a spokeswoman for education reform.

At least four ELC staffers besides Mrs. Keegan make six-figure salaries. The council’s annual payroll for 12 staffers tops $1 million.

Mr. Moloney said the conditions laid down by the four directors were “nonnegotiable.”

Mrs. Keegan acknowledged that Michael J. Perik, chief executive officer of Achievement Technologies Inc., the ELC’s principal technology partner in Newton, Mass., had given one $15,000 donation as a “conference fee” to the nonprofit council.

But she and Mr. Horne declined to respond to inquiries about another, more substantial subcontractor gift of $200,000, which sources told The Times was given recently “when ELC needed cash” to meet its payroll.

Mrs. Keegan also refused to allow a reporter for The Times to review the ELC’s contracts with Achievement Technologies, the Princeton Review and participating schools.

Mr. Perik, multimillionaire software pioneer and major Democratic political contributor, could not be reached for comment. Top officials of his firm did not respond to telephone and e-mail inquiries.

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