Deal's former education adviser is working for him and APS. A conflict?

The Atlanta Public Schools hired Erin Hames, the governor's recently departed education adviser, to help the district avoid absorption of  its struggling schools into a proposed new state school district.

And Gov. Nathan Deal has also retained Hames in an advisory role to help him promote and develop his Opportunity School District idea that goes before voters next year.

Is Hames wearing one too many hats?

Erin Hames will go from advising the governor on his Opportunity School District to advising APS how to avoid losing its schools to the OSD.

Credit: Maureen Downey

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Credit: Maureen Downey

As the AJC's Greg Bluestein explains:

Documents released in an Open Records Act request reveal that Erin Hames will make $30,000 over the next year consulting Deal on education policy even as she draws from a no-bid $96,000 consulting contract with the Atlanta Public Schools system.

The dual contracts raised concerns of government transparency advocates who accuse the school leader of trying to serve two competing interests. Clint Murphy, the chairman of the Common Cause Georgia watchdog group, called it a "clear conflict of interest and an insult to the people of Georgia."

"Ms. Hames needs to pick a boss. She can't have it both ways, " he said. "This further illustrates the need for comprehensive ethics reform that includes very clear conflict-of-interest rules for legislators and state employees."

Hames said Thursday that she is honored to continue working with Deal to "do the bold work necessary to give our children the opportunities they deserve" and that she will continue to seek other government clients.

The governor, meanwhile, said Thursday that he doesn't view it as a conflict of interest. Deal earlier said in a statement that he is glad "the governor's office will continue to be one of those organizations benefiting from her expertise and work ethic."

Bill Willis, a professor emeritus of sociology living in Winston, Ga., raises several questions about the ethical and practical issues here.

Willis writes:

I am sharing a concern raised by the recent hiring of Gov. Nathan Deal’s architect of the Opportunity School District as a consultant to the Atlanta Public Schools (supposedly on how to avoid being taken over as a failing school) while remaining a consultant to Deal.

I see the dual roles as ripe for conflict of interests. Will Hames be committed to helping districts avoid being taken over in a plan the governor is aggressively pursuing? Or will she feel obliged to identify schools that can feed into the take-over program which the governor and his allies are pushing so vigorously that it is scheduled for a referendum next year?

The governor has invested in an elaborate proposal that will include an OSD superintendent and a system into which failing schools will be transferred from the jurisdiction of local school boards (supposedly to rescue them over a period of as many as 10 years) though the governor gives no clue as to what will be done during the take-over period that will enable the schools to operate more effectively than under their present structure.

If Erin Hames is capable of helping a school avoid the pitfalls that would designate it for take-over, why would she not rescue them all? And if she managed to spare schools from take-over, what would be the fate of the governor’s elaborate OSD system? Would a superintendent and staff be maintained at taxpayer expense if all APS units rose above failing status in the first year, for example?  For how long?

There has been no discussion of what the OSD would do to enhance the performance of local schools. There has been no discussion of what kinds of skills the OSD office would bring to the schools. Would the OSD hire professional educators? Management experts? Social and/or behavioral scientists? People who have demonstrated excellence in the ability to turn failing school districts around?

In addition to the possible conflict of interest in Hames' dual roles, I believe these and many other questions need to be answered.

Without a doubt, schools that are failing to provide our children with a quality education and adequately prepare them for productive lives and career opportunities need to be held accountable for doing just that. However, the insinuation of some heavy-handed grab into the mix without providing parents with some assurance the governor’s plan has a better chance for success than the current system would be a mistake.

I hope the citizens demand evidence that whatever reform model is proposed can achieve what it purports to do. It would be a shame to have schools taken out of the public domain and transferred to a for-profit enterprise where consultants get wealthy and Georgia’s children continue to languish behind the national average.

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