Saturday, May 14, 2005

Revolving Door: RISD Must Establish Clear Boundaries

Jim Nelson is a former attorney and Commissioner of Education. -Angela
12:10 AM CDT on Friday, May 13, 2005

Richardson schools Superintendent Jim Nelson said last week that he could fade the heat from any conflict-of-interest complaints involving his district and his former employer.

Here's some heat.

The month after Mr. Nelson took his job in Richardson last summer, the district began obtaining state-bought reading materials sold by his former company.

By the end of January, RISD paid nearly $400,000 of its own money in several separate transactions for additional materials from that company, Voyager Expanded Learning.

Aside: Mr. Nelson's wife was, and still is, employed by Voyager Expanded Learning, as is former RISD Superintendent Vernon Johnson.

As outlined in an article by Dallas Morning News reporter Kristine Hughes, Mr. Nelson says the RISD-Voyager deals were legal, completed with the knowledge of the board and yielded him no financial gain. He maintains the district got the best reading program available for struggling students.

None of that does anything to stop our queasiness in watching the revolving door between the private and public sectors – especially while the Texas Legislature is entertaining various privatization ideas for public schools.

Mr. Nelson has one of the most prominent names in Texas public education, having served two governors as education commissioner. He left that job three years ago to become a vice president at Voyager, an ambitious Dallas-based supplier of education materials with a reputation of cultivating political connections.

A high-profile statewide job typically sharpens sensitivity about maintaining an unassailable record of handling public dollars. If Mr. Nelson's sensitivity meter needs recalibrating, his school board would be wise to do the job to protect the public trust. RISD could at least insulate Mr. Nelson from decisions involving Voyager. It's notable that the nearly $400,000 in purchases occurred without formal board approval.

This editorial page has criticized well-salaried superintendents for paid consulting agreements in which they dispense advice to major suppliers of education products.

The Voyager case falls in the same category of offensiveness. The issue is not lawbreaking. It is ensuring absolute confidence in the men and women responsible for spending taxpayers' money to run Texas' public schools.

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