Former Deal aide’s schools contract raises ethical questions

The architect of Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to allow the state takeover of Georgia’s most struggling schools is advising one of the state’s biggest school districts on how to avoid state intervention while also consulting the governor on education issues.

Documents released Thursday 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.”

At the center of fight for takeover plan

The school takeover proposal, which still awaits approval from the state’s voters in a 2016 referendum, would empower the state to take control of schools deemed to be chronically failing, convert them into charters or shut them down.

It.poses high stakes for both Deal and Atlanta Public Schools.

For Deal, it’s seen as the top initiative in his second and final term as governor. For Atlanta Public Schools, it currently relegates 23 schools – or nearly three out of every 10 of the system’s 80 institutions – as candidates for potential takeover.

Hames, who was Deal’s deputy chief of staff for policy and legislative affairs when she left last week for private practice, was a key figure in pushing the takeover plan through the Legislature, which survived tight votes in both the House and Senate.

Aside from the governor, she was the chief Deal administration advocate for the Opportunity School District legislation that squeezed through the Legislature this year.

She was front and center at public hearings throughout the legislative fight over the measure, which critics said gave the state too much power over sacred local issues. She told skeptical lawmakers that the ultimate goal of the program was to improve struggling schools so there was no need for the threat of school takeover.

In the heat of the debate, Hames helped organize a trip for wary politicians to talk to administrators and teachers in Louisiana, which pioneered a similar program after Hurricane Katrina. Through a mix of carrots and sticks, the measure narrowly earned the two-thirds majority needed, thanks to a handful of Democrats who crossed party lines.

The group Hames will head, ReformEd, is funded by “two national families,” top Deal aide Chris Riley said in an email obtained in the records request announcing her departure from the governor’s office. Neither he nor Hames would identify those two families.

‘Someone else paying their salary!’

Hames landed her first private gig with ReformEd weeks before she departed Deal’s office on Sept. 1. The consulting role with the Atlanta school system includes “developing strategies for chronically low performing schools in the district.”

“They have developed a plan to increase student achievement, with a particular focus on schools that have historically underperformed on a variety of measures, and I am excited to be a part of the team helping to implement this plan,” Hames said.

The school board voted 7-2 to award Hames the contract after Atlanta schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen described Hames as “uniquely positioned” to help the district. Byron Amos, one of the two board members who voted against the measure, said he thought hiring Hames was “not the best thing to do at this particular time.”

“I support the superintendent and the strategy we laid out as a board to react to the Opportunity School District,” Amos said. “I just did not support this particular part of it.”

In a farewell note to staff in the governor’s office announcing Hames’ departure, Riley wrote: “I don’t really consider her gone, I just view someone else paying their salary!”

Not exactly. The contract Riley and Hames signed shows the state will pay Hames’ group $2,500 a month over the next year to meet periodically with the governor to consult on education policy, child welfare and other issues that affect children.

She’ll also be charged with researching memos, defending Deal’s public policy recommendations, mentoring the governor’s aides and advising them on controversies that crop up.

“As both Governor Deal and I have said repeatedly,” she said, “our hope is that local districts are successful in turning around chronically failing schools, precluding the need for OSD intervention.”