Monday, February 16, 2004

Directors of the pro-Bush Education Leaders Council are questioning the merit of a $23.5 million federal technology program that pays six-figure salaries to the council’s top staff.

The program overseen by the council, called Following the Leaders, initially was given $3.5 million from the U.S. Education Department and then two successive $10 million congressional appropriation earmarks under the No Child Left Behind school reform act. The program, which has been initiated at about 400 schools in 11 states, uses an experimental online computer instructional system designed to track student achievement.

ELC executive committee member Abigail Thernstrom asked the board to take action on auditors’ concerns that the group’s $235,000-a-year consultant contract with Lisa Graham Keegan, its chief executive officer, violates federal conflict-of-interest regulations, said ELC board member William J. Moloney.

“The longer they put it off, the messier it will be,” Mr. Moloney said about issues raised by Mrs. Thernstrom. “Let’s get this stuff out.”

Mrs. Thernstrom declined to comment.

The issues are expected to come before ELC’s executive committee, or even the full board of directors, by teleconference Thursday.

A major concern is that Mrs. Keegan arranged a three-year automatically renewable consultant contract for herself instead of becoming a regular staff member. She told The Washington Times she did this “for tax purposes,” but auditors said the arrangement threatens ELC’s own tax-exempt status. Five other ELC staff members hired by Mrs. Keegan made more than $100,000 last year.

“The payroll has become dependent on the federal program. As long as they are dependent on their inflated superstructure, they will never be true to real reform,” Mr. Moloney said.

Mrs. Keegan resigned midterm as Arizona’s elected state superintendent of public instruction to become ELC’s chief operating officer in June 2001. She said she was disappointed by the turmoil but denied any wrongdoing.

“We just have to move forward,” she said.

Jim Horne, ELC board chairman, expressed “total confidence” in Mrs. Keegan and said he would let the board decide what to do.

The council’s chief private benefactor, William J. Hume, president of supermarket products giant Basic American Foods and former member of the California state board of education, resigned last fall when Mrs. Keegan failed to raise a promised $12.3 million in private funding, after he gave $700,000 to ELC.

Mr. Moloney resigned as board chairman in December after Mrs. Keegan lost ELC’s partnership with a Bush administration-funded alternative teacher-licensing project, called the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE).

The certification board severed ties with ELC amid charges and countercharges of mismanagement by the ELC staff. Mrs. Keegan remains on ABCTE’s board of directors.

The National Council for Teacher Quality, another ELC partner that acquired $43 million in federal grants over six years, also severed ties with ELC after Mrs. Keegan failed to recruit 12 new states for ABCTE under a $420,000 federal contract. Only Idaho and Pennsylvania signed on to the program.

Mrs. Keegan blamed political opposition to the ABCTE from the education establishment and school unions. But others said “lack of follow-up and attention to details” by Mrs. Keegan and her staff were the major reasons.

“If they had spent as much time promoting the American Board as they did getting congressional earmarks for Following the Leaders, they might have had more success,” Mr. Moloney said.

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