The top technology administrator of the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into whether he broke any rules with his frequent use of a luxury fishing vessel owned by a company holding hundreds of millions of dollars in eRate contracts with the district.

Ruben Bohuchot, DISD’s associate superintendent for technology services, could be the latest example of what has become a disturbing recent trend: high-profile school leaders coming under fire for alleged violations involving ed-tech deals.

Bohuchot acknowledges taking free cruises on a 59-foot vessel owned by executives of Houston-based Micro System Enterprises every five or six weeks. According to the Dallas Morning News, Micro System has been listed as the recipient of more than 96 percent of the $369 million in eRate funding the district has applied for since 2003, though district officials say the company is the lead partner in a consortium of vendors who split the funding.

Bohuchot told the Dallas newspaper these boat trips did not influence the district’s bidding process, even though he wrote the specifications for jobs and negotiated the final terms after contracts were awarded. Micro System President Frankie Wong is a friend of his, Bohuchot said, adding that vendors on all DISD computer contracts worth more than $50,000 are chosen by a committee over which he has no influence.

District policies bar employees from accepting gifts or favors from vendors other than novelties such as key chains or coffee mugs. To rent a boat comparable to the Micro System yacht typically costs more than $1,800 per day, according to the Dallas newspaper.

Wong and two executives from companies with close ties to Micro System also have given thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to a city school board member, the Dallas Morning News reported. Dallas school trustee Ron Price reportedly received $25,000 in political donations from Wong, Larry Lehman of Giddings, Texas, and Frank Trifilio of Houston. Lehman and Trifilio work for Acclaim Professional Services, one of the consortium’s other members.

Price says he consulted a lawyer and the Texas Ethics Commission before accepting these donations. He says he was told that as long as the donations were from individuals and not companies, he could take them.

The three executives also have given more than $15,000 in campaign contributions to four Houston board members, according to the Houston Chronicle. Since 2003, their firms have received a collective $43 million for services delivered to that city’s school system, the Chronicle reported.

A disturbing trend

With its suspension of Bohuchot, Dallas joins a growing list of U.S. school districts dealing with allegations of questionable technology purchases, many of which involve third-party contractors accused of using bribes to curry favor with school administrators.

Former Prince George’s County, Md., schools chief Andre Hornsby found himself in similar straits earlier this year. Hornsby left the school system amid allegations that a $1 million deal inked between the district and Emeryville, Calif.-based LeapFrog SchoolHouse was aided by a personal relationship he had with one of the company’s sales representatives.

Hornsby, who is under investigation by the FBI for his dealings with the company, also was accused of running an eRate consulting business that conflicted with his interests as the school system’s top administrator and of accepting gifts, including a 10-day, all-expenses-paid trip to South Africa that he took while serving as president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators.

At press time, Hornsby’s dealings with education vendors remained under federal and state investigation.

And just yesterday, a story in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin of Ontario, Calif., called into question the Pomona Unified School District’s purchase of 460 high-end Apple laptops for teachers in 2002. The laptops were purchased illicitly at inflated prices from a local reseller with ties to the district’s technology director, the newspaper alleged.

Pomona reportedly used more than $2.4 million in federal eRate funds to purchase the machines from Spectrum Communications Cabling Services of Corona, Calif. Never mind that computers for classroom use are ineligible for support under current eRate rules; educators are quoted by the Bulletin as saying that the machines showed up as blank slates, with no software–missing even operating systems.

Garey High School technology resource teacher Cindy Munafo, a 25-year district veteran, told the California newspaper that she opened up her Apple PowerBook G4 to find “nothing more than a glorified DVD player.” Munafo said she was forced to write a grant to secure the $20,000 in additional software needed to upgrade Garey’s laptops with enough applications so fellow teachers could perform basic document creation and other administrative tasks with the machines.

When asked about the purchase, district technology director David Jaramillo told the newspaper the stripped-down laptops were purchased as “classroom servers” and not as instructional tools.

But Munafo said that wasn’t the case. “As soon as they introduced those laptop servers to us, I knew it was a big joke,” she told the Bulletin. “They gave them to us with no software on them whatsoever.”

An investigation by the Bulletin reportedly found that Spectrum Communications charged the district well above retail price for the equipment: $3,573 for each laptop, or nearly $600 more than Apple’s retail price of $2,999. With an additional service plan and a $600 installation fee, the total cost was somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 per machine–more than twice what other districts across the country have paid for similar-sized deployments.

Digging deeper, the newspaper later learned that David Jaramillo’s brother, Joseph Jaramillo, is the director of research and education at a Spectrum subsidiary, according to a published account. The investigation, reported by Kenneth Todd Ruiz, also found the same subsidiary counted a former Pomona assistant superintendent as its chief operating officer.

Avoid conflicts of interest

Educators can take steps to keep questionable dealings from overshadowing the good work their schools do, said Tom Hutton, a staff attorney for the National School Boards Association.

Because individual school systems likely set their own policies regarding procurement and competitive-bidding procedures, Hutton said, administrators and school board members who have doubts about any pending ed-tech deal should seek advice from their district’s ethics board or legal counsel.

Links:

Dallas Independent School District
http://www.dallasisd.org

Micro System Enterprises Inc.
http://www.mseng.com

Acclaim Professional Services
http://www.acclaimps.com
(Note: the web site for Acclaim Professional Services was “under construction” at press time.)

Houston Independent School District
http://www.hisd.org

Prince George’s County Public Schools
http://www.pgcps.pg.k12.md.us

LeapFrog SchoolHouse
http://www.leapfrogschoolhouse.com

Pomona Unified School District
http://www.pomona.k12.ca.us

Spectrum Communications Cabling Services Inc.
http://www.spectrumccsi.com

National School Boards Association
http://www.nsba.org

Dallas Morning News
http://www.dallasnews.com/

Houston Chronicle
http://www.chron.com/

Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
http://www.dailybulletin.com/