Superintendent used vacation to meet with corporate reps
By JOHN HOWELL
Warwick's new superintendent of schools Peter Horoschak had been on the job for only a week when he left town to attend a conference in St. Louis. The School Committee approved his request to leave and Horoschak used vacation time to attend the week-long summer session of the Education Research and Development Institute. Last week Horoschak defended his use of time to participate in the ERDI meeting, attended by 44 companies that had each paid $11,000 to be there. He said he had made the commitment to be at the meeting prior to his selection as Warwick superintendent, he used vacation time and the experience puts him and other participating superintendents on the "cutting edge" of what companies that provide educational materials and serve schools are developing. Since the Beacon reported Horoschak would attend the ERDI meeting, one of two held annually, the newspaper received information from an unidentified subscriber concerning ERDI, raising the question if his attendance posed a conflict of interest. The Dallas Morning News reported on July 17, 2004, that the superintendents received an all-expenses paid trip as well as a $2,000 consulting fee to meet with textbook publishers, computer manufacturers, food service vendors and other companies — in essence, to tell them how to improve their products. Horoschak, then superintendent of the South Orange-Maplewood, N.J., school district, was one of those reported at the meeting. Reached at St. Louis last week, Paul Dulle, a former school superintendent and president and CEO of ERDI, said he sees no conflict of interest for superintendents to participate in the intense sessions with corporate representatives. Dulle said each session, during which a panel of superintendents meets with representatives from a single company, last three hours. Dulle said superintendents provide unvarnished appraisals and often can be brutal in their assessment. "We'll tell you what's good and what's bad about it," he said. Dulle said ERDI does not offer exclusivity to any of the vendors participating and competitors attend the event. Dulle said he recruits "bright, experienced and people [superintendents] who care about children" to serve as panelists. He said about 70 superintendents from across the country are actively involved with ERDI, although not all of them attend the semi-annual meetings. For their participation, ERDI, a company that Dulle owns, pays travel and lodging expenses of superintendents as well as $500 for each session they attend. Among companies participating in last week's meeting were Scantron, the manufacturer of test scoring equipment, programs and materials, textbook publishers Pearson Education and Horace Mann Insurance. Dulle said the sessions help corporations understand educational trends and shape products while giving the superintendents insights to the corporate community. "They are learning things they would never learn as a superintendent," he said, adding that there is no effort on the part of vendors to sell their product. "This is totally ethical and above-board." Chairman of the Warwick School Committee Christopher Friel, who looked into ERDI after the Beacon raised questions about Horoschak's participation, said the meeting "seems more like a think-tank than a conference. It doesn't appear to be a conflict." He noted that the purchase of materials and services all goes out for bid, which "pretty much ensures there would be no favoritism because of ERDI." As for Horoschak leaving for St. Louis a week after coming aboard as superintendent, Friel said the committee approved his request and he took vacation time to do it. Also, Friel said Horoschak's contract permits him to do outside consulting work "as long as it doesn't interfere" with his Warwick job. Rosemary Healey, director of school human resources, said the contract allows Horoschak to do consulting "outside of the work day." "He is permitted to do this under the terms of his contract," she said. "It didn't seem like [he was] pushing a certain agenda," Friel said of Horoschak. "It doesn't appear to be anything sinister to me."