Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Berman Responds to Heat Over Potential Conflict of Interest

On April 13th, the Jefferson County Board of Education agreed to fully participate with VHS, Inc., a Massachusetts virtual high school company. JCPS Superintendent Sheldon Berman still sits on the company’s Board of Directors as a founding member.

For about a week now, Page One Kentucky has been rumbling about a potential conflict of interest.
We hear through the grapevine that Sheldon Berman sits on the Board of Directors of the Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST) in MA.

CAST has a program called Universal Design for Learning that Berman has pushed or implementation– with tons and tons of money, of course– in the school district... Berman, we hear, has refused to resign from the Board despite being advised to do so by the attorney for the Board of Education. From what we can tell, he found some sort of ruling that he thinks exempts him.

KRS 156.480 restricts employees of school districts with decision-making authority from supplying goods or services for which school funds are expended.

No employee of any county or independent school district with decision-making authority over the financial position of the school district shall have any pecuniary interest, either directly or indirectly, in an amount exceeding twenty-five dollars ($25) per year, either at the time of or after his appointment to office, in supplying any goods, services, property, merchandise, or services, except personal services that are in addition to those required by contract for employment, of any nature whatsoever for which school funds are expended.
Penalties for violating the statute include loss of one's position and a fine from $50 to $500.

On Friday April 24th, Berman wrote to his board to alert the members to the Page One allegations. Berman said he accepted no compensation for his work on the board and he sought the advice of the Attorney General before proceeding in the matter.

On Saturday, Toni Konz posted the response from Berman on her Learning Curve blog.

I received a phone call on Wednesday from someone who was concerned about this contract, since Berman serves on the board of directors at VHS. The person who called me was concerned that Berman and the board might be violating KRS 156.480, which states that employees of department or school districts with decision-making authority are prohibited from supplying goods or services for which school funds are

I did some checking and found out that VHS is a non-profit organization and that Berman does not benefit financially from any contract in his position on the board of directors. I talked to Berman about this on Friday and he told me that the district sought an attorney general's opinion on the matter last fall, just to make sure that a contract with VHS would not be a conflict of interest.

Assistant Attorney General Lisa Lang, wrote in that November opinion:

"It is our opinion, based on the relevant statutes, the case law and prior attorney general opinions as well as facts presented in your letter, that the (Jefferson County Board of Education) and the Superintendent would not be in violation of either KRS 156.420(2) or KRS 45A.455(1)(b) if JCBOE entered into the proposed contract."
End of Story?

Yesterday Page One persisted in their concern over the - now recalibrated - appearance of impropriety.

Berman’s ties to various boards and companies could be nice superficially and could turn into great connections for the public school system. But there’s no denying the appearance of impropriety exists. And there’s possibly something in it all for Berman or he wouldn’t be constantly pushing contracts to every friend he’s ever made. When you’re charged with spending taxpayer’s hard-earned money, you don’t get to spread it around to your friends without some serious, serious scrutiny.

In addition Page One changed gears and upped the ante.

We hear through the grapevine that several members of the Board of Education have taken a sudden keen interest in Berman’s incessant travel outside of the school district. Berman allegedly travels quite a bit to attend board and other meetings as a result of his ties to outside organizations. ...With the latest revelation that Berman’s friends and business ties are benefiting directly from his role as Superintendent, this could be a problem.

This morning we filed an open records request in an attempt to gain copies of Berman’s travel records. We hope to determine just how much time he spends traveling to and from these various meetings in an attempt to see if this impacts his job as superintendent. How much time is he in-district? How often is he gone? Based on interviews we have already conducted, Berman is gone so frequently that it surprises many within Jefferson County Public Schools.

Where's all this going? I don't know. But its a good bet that we're going to learn more about the extent of Berman's travels, and any excesses, in the not too distant future.
Moderator's Note: This article was edited to remove some unsubstantiated material. Explanation here.


Anonymous said...

There are many ways to benefit from official actions and influence other than the financial. Board of Education must buy an independent investigation of Berman, his wife, any other family members (including those who don't share the name "Berman"), old buddies, etc. Berman must have anticipated a problem or he would not have asked the Attorney General.

If you lack integrity, having the Attorney General say it is OK is not OK.

Richard Day said...

Thanks for the comment.

I understand what you're saying. But in fairness, I have to say that I am not yet convinced that Page One has "the goods" on this story. If I were a JCPS Board member, I would be very interested in the issue. But I think I'd need to see more concrete evidence of conflicts before I'd spend taxpayer money on such a pricey investigation.

If future revelations change things - then I'd be open to changing my mind.