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The Empire Strikes Back Offers Some Lame Excuses

To no one’s surprise, the ideologically reliable editorial page of the New York Sun has rushed to the defense of deputy Chancellor and former Edison President Chris Cerf against charges of “conflict of interest.”

“It’s not a matter of his having sold stock in Edison Schools the day before he was asked about it,” Sun editorial opined with an imaginative timeline which managed to leave out the little fact that Cerf divested his stake in the Edison stock after he learned he would be asked about it.

The editorial continues: “What he actually did was forgo — he gave away — warrants for Edison Stock that could have been, someday, worth millions. He had no dealing with Edison in his work for the Department of Education. But he wanted to go the extra mile in exchange for a clean field in public service. Which of his or Mr. Klein’s critics has ever made that kind of sacrifice in order to be unencumbered to work within our school system?”

How about the thousands of public school educators who earn a fraction of a deputy Chancellor’s salary, and who have foregone the opportunity to ever earn millions of dollars in stock, but do the hard work of educating over one million New York City public school children every day, often against overwhelming odds and without much needed support? You won’t find a group more critical of Klein’s reign at the DOE, with the possible exception of parents.

The bottom line here, which the Sun studiously avoids, is that the number two person at the DOE was holding on to rights to Edison stock worth millions of dollars at the very same time that the company was under contract with the DOE and looking for considerably more business. The value of Cerf’s Edison stake was not unconnected to the present — and future — volume of Edison business with the DOE.

Over at the Chalkboard, Joe Williams expresses some reservations regarding our criticism of the DOE’s mishandling of Platform Learning-gate. What’s wrong with Platform Learning running up the bill ninefold for providing NCLB mandated tutoring, he asks. Doesn’t this just reflect the demand of schools and parents who chose their tutoring services?

Perhaps Joe should take a look at the report of the Special Commissioner of Investigations that looked into Platform Learning, when he gets some free time from the hard work of attacking critics of Joel Klein. [Yeah, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.] The report details what it calls “improprieties” that Platform Learning, Newton Learning and other private SES providers employed in the marketing of their tutoring services. [Newton Learning is a subsidiary of Edison Schools, and as we noted here Monday, the head of Platform Learning is a former executive Vice President at Edison.] The report reads:

The investigation revealed that Platform Learning Inc. (“Platform”), Newton Learning (“Newton”), and several other SES providers engaged in a number of questionable business practices in their dealings with the DOE, with parents of DOE students and with students themselves. These included misappropriation and misuse of confidential student information and the offering of self-serving incentive programs.

Furthermore, providers failed to conduct background and fingerprint checks on individuals who worked on school premises and who came in contact with New York City public schoolchildren…

Here are some of the particular findings regarding Platform Learning:

Investigators spoke to a confidential source who reported receiving a telephone call from Michael Davis, Platform’s Development Coordinator, in which Davis offered a payment of $5,000 to the source’s school as an incentive in exchange for the enrollment of more than 150 students in the Platform program.*

In the presence of his attorneys, investigators interviewed Davis on two occasions…

Davis finally acknowledged that, during a conversation with Everett Hughes, principal at IS 292 in Brooklyn, the concept of giving funds to schools was raised. Still Davis claimed that no specific amounts were discussed.§

In the second interview, additional questionable business practices were confirmed. Davis admitted that personnel from two schools provided him with students’ personal information…

According to Davis, other Platform personnel, whom he could not identify, possessed copies of student rosters which listed confidential student pedigree information. The Platform representative explained that at some schools the rosters were left in plain view by parent coordinators, but he claimed that he did not copy or gather any of the information contained in these documents. Davis also reported that he knew of at least one parent coordinator who was hired by Platform to enroll students…

Moreover, Davis admitted that he gave $2,000 to a principal. Specifically, Davis stated that he received a telephone call from Casper Cacioppo, principal of PS 89 in Queens, seeking a contribution to the school’s renovation fund. Davis explained that Platform operated an in-school program at PS 89 at the time of the solicitation and during the subsequent 2004-2005 school year…

Davis also confirmed our finding that Platform failed to conduct timely background and fingerprint checks on individuals who ultimately came in contact with New York City public schoolchildren. Davis acknowledged that he and other Platform representatives were not fingerprinted until after this investigation began…

The SCI also interviewed Matthew Fields, Vice President of Platform for the Northeast Region.

In addition to Davis, in the presence of his attorneys, investigators interviewed Matthew Fields on two occasions. During these interviews, Fields was, at times, evasive. However, he acknowledged personally requesting and receiving student information from DOE school personnel. Moreover, he confirmed that Platform both offered and actually donated sums of money to a number of DOE schools…

Fields stated that it was his understanding that individuals working in Platform’s SES program were required to have fingerprint checks but could begin working in the DOE schools while awaiting the results. Fields claimed that he did not offer any incentives or monetary amounts to schools, principals, assistant principals or parent coordinators, and was not aware of any Platform employee extending such an offer. Contrary to that assertion, he acknowledged the payment of funds, by Platform, to a number of schools.

The report provided a long list of improprieties and questionable activities by Platform Learning which it “represent only some examples of the conduct discovered.” The list includes:

  • Requested and/or obtained confidential student information/labels
  • Failed to fingerprint or do background checks on individuals who came into contact with students
  • Solicited in the schools
  • Offered items of value to schools based on the number of students attending Platform classes
  • Solicited parents
  • Distributed backpack mailers to schools
  • Offered money to parent coordinators for recruitment of students
  • Misstated student attendance
  • Promised and/or gave incentives/rewards/gifts to students
  • Conducted a raffle at a school
  • Recruited the President of a PTA to obtain a student roster
  • Gave funds to schools
  • Exceeded Student to Instructor Ratios
  • Maintained student contact information on personal computer

What is amazing here is that the DOE received this report while Platform Learning was overrunning its first contract by some $35 million, and yet with it in hand, the DOE still gave Platform Learning a second contract. It is not as if all of these improprieties, which included the filing of records claiming 100% attendance for students who never attended a single session of tutoring, were unconnected to the enormous overruns on these contracts.

And just in case you didn’t remember, the school bus debacle was designed to save a grand total of $12 million.

______________________________

* “Investigators have a tape of a telephone call in which Davis withdrew his offer of a payment of funds to the school. The offer was withdrawn after the fact of this investigation had been made public.” [Footnote to this sentence in the original report]

§ “In his third interview with investigators, again under oath and in the presence of his attorney, after compelling his testimony, Hughes admitted that Platform representative Michael Davis had given him several envelopes containing sums of United States currency totaling $500.” [Taken from pp. 13 – 14 of the report.]

¶ In footnote 27, the report says: “Several Platform employees failed to disclose their criminal records. Fingerprint checks revealed those individuals were arrested for crimes that included: attempted murder, attempted robbery, and the sale of narcotics.”

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3 Comments:

  • 1 curious3
    · Feb 14, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    Hey Leo,

    Like many, I love the use of the internet to go after potentially corrupt activities and I am happy to see you making that effort.

    With regard to Cerf, I think his responses to a couple of questions were deceptive. He was put in an awkward situation — in fact it looks like he was completely set up, but I only get that sense from what I have read — but he handled the situation poorly. On the flip side, one important point is that he is giving up for no compensation warrants that might have been worth millions of dollars. I think he did this for some combination of two reasons:

    1. He knows the warrants he gave up were probably not worth nearly as much as the numbers you and others quote.

    2. He very much wants to work in NYC public education and it wasn’t worth the time and distraction to fight the issue.

    In any case, based on my knowledge of the situation, I think it is far-fetched that Cerf hoped to use his position in government as a means to enrich himself. Is that what you are suggesting? Or just that it looks bad? If you dig deeper, I would be surprised if your honest conclusion was that Cerf was planning on using his position to enrich himself.

    With regards to Platform Learning, I would break the issue into two components:

    1. Is it bad that Platform received funds well in excess of the initial estimated amount?

    2. Is it bad if Platform conducted business in an inappropriate manner?

    #2 is clearly a bad thing and I hope we get to the bottom of the situation.

    I think Joe Williams was questioning #1. I have the same question. I think Platform got paid based on the amount of work they did and they did much more work than was initially estimated. This could be a bad thing, especially if they did this via inappropriate practices, but in and of itself it is not necessarily a problem. Indeed, if they were doing a high-quality job, it could be a good thing. Does that make any sense?

    Ken

  • 2 Jackie Bennett
    · Feb 14, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    I’m just going to briefly weigh in on Ken’s (Curious 3) second question: Is it bad that Platform received funds well in excess of the initial estimated amount?

    I’d say yes, absolutely, and especially by the second contract. Why couldn’t anyone do better than estimate 1.9 million on contract number two when 40 million had already gone down the hole in contract number one?

    Besides, this is a company under investigation for giving bribes and kickbacks — to principals, parent coordinators, kids, a paraprofessional. An awful lot of money seems to have been floating around.

    Where was the oversight?

    The same DoE that so blithely wrote these checks also parsed the transportation rules, throwing kids off buses — all to save, what? Not one quarter of this.

    Why such oversight on little kids and working moms and dads? Why none for Platform Learning?

    Well, maybe I’m naive.

    Contracts over estimate are one thing. Renewed contracts nine times over estimate for companies under investigation for those kinds of activities — yeah, I’d say that’s bad.

  • 3 Leo Casey
    · Feb 16, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    I second Jackie on her answer.

    On the first question, I do not think that the question is the character of Chris Cerf. I think it a good practice to assume the best of people one does not know, and Cerf falls into that category for me.

    But a public trust requires that there be no appearance of impropriety, as well as no reality, that there be no conflict of interest that could be exploited. That is why public figures in positions of power and responsibility use such devices as ‘blind trusts’ while they are in office. We should not have to decide whether or not we can trust public figures to not exploit conflict of interests — remove such conflicts, and the question is mute.