The top technology administrator for 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 conflicts of interest 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.

At press time, district officials were continuing their investigation, and they were not sure when it would be completed.

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 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 reportedly have received a collective $43 million for services delivered to that city’s school system.

A disturbing trend

With its suspension of Bohuchot, Dallas joins a growing list of U.S. school districts grappling with allegations of questionable technology deals.

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–sponsored by another of the county’s vendors–that he took while serving as president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators.

In 2003, former Oakland, Mich., schools superintendent James Redmond was fired amid allegations he misspent district funds and misled the board–charges he has denied. Redmond allegedly steered school contracts to the MINDS Institute while serving on the company’s board of directors.

A fellow MINDS board member, working as a paid consultant to the Oakland schools, received stock options from VTEL Corp. as a result of being appointed to that company’s advisory board two years after recommending that Oakland purchase $800,000 in VTEL videoconferencing equipment, the Detroit Free Press reported last year.

Educators can take steps to keep questionable dealings from overshadowing the good work their schools do, said Tom Hutton, staff attorney for the National School Boards Association. Chief among these: Avoid potential conflicts of interest by refusing offers of gifts or services and strictly adhering to state and local competitive-bidding requirements.

Because each district likely sets its 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.

See these related links:

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

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

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