But one market the company hasn’t broken into is the Cobb County School District, a potentially huge untapped line of business with more than 108,000 students.
If School Board Post 6 representative Scott Sweeney is re-elected next month, he may look to change that. Sweeney has been hired as a consultant for the company.
“I do some consulting in the technology sector, yes,” Sweeney said when asked if he works for Promethean.
Sweeney attended the National School Boards Association Conference last weekend in New Orleans on behalf of the company.
He said the Cobb school board and school district know that if anything regarding Promethean is presented to the board, he would recuse himself. But he added he wouldn’t recuse himself from technology votes not related to the company.
Though Sweeney admitted his involvement with Promethean when asked directly, he withheld details during two previous chances to disclose his interests.
In a financial disclosure form political candidates are required to fill out, he listed his occupation as CFO/secretary for a consulting firm called Sweeney Inc. In a questionnaire returned to the Marietta Daily Journal Sweeney listed the same information along with an additional title: business development officer. Promethean was nowhere to be found on either disclosure.
“I’m a consultant for them,” Sweeney said Thursday of the omission. “I’m not an employee of the company.”
But William Perry, executive director of watchdog group Common Cause Georgia said voters might
feel his involvement is a conflict of interest.
“Elected officials should stay away from those kinds of interests if they are wanting to serve the public,” Perry said. “It just gives the appearance of impropriety. He’s doing nothing wrong by the law, but it makes most people raise their eyebrows if someone is on the school board and representing a company that wants to make money on the school board.”
Connections to Cobb Schools Foundation
Promethean’s ties to Cobb school leaders don’t end with Sweeney. When asked how he got involved with the company, Sweeney said his initial contact was through Jim Marshall, Promethean’s president and CEO.
Marshall is a board member of the Cobb Schools Foundation, a fundraising group that donates money to Cobb schools through fundraisers and has an employee on the district’s payroll.
Sheri Brante is that employee, the executive director of the foundation. Her husband, Morten Brante, is senior vice president of services for Promethean.
Sheri Brante said she does not see the connections between Cobb school leaders and Promethean as a problem.
“I don’t see it as a conflict of interest,” she said. “When my husband started with Promethean, he had been in the technology sector for 20 years. He and Jim Marshall met before he was with Promethean.”
Brante pointed out both Marshall and her husband were on the Cobb Schools Foundation board long before they were hired by Promethean and said Sweeney has made no appointments to the group’s board. Marshall was appointed by a former school board member who served before Sweeney. Brante said the school district was notified as soon as her husband was hired by Promethean in July of 2013.
“I don’t know what Sweeney does,” she said. “I know he’s a consultant, I guess it’s with Promethean. I don’t know what he does with Promethean. He doesn’t come to our foundation meetings. He’s always supported the foundation and what we do to support the school district.”
Brante is paid $43,000 without benefits by the school district to work part time. She estimated the foundation raised between $150,000 and $175,000 for the school district last year through fundraisers.
Promethean’s business model
Promethean whiteboards can be used as a classroom tool in a variety of different ways, but they aren’t cheap. In 2012, the Douglas County School System paid $5.8 million to put the boards in 1,178 classrooms. That school system now has a Promethean board in every classroom countywide. For a school district the size of CCSD, a similar contract would likely surpass $20 million.
The company’s products take what looks like a traditional whiteboard and turns it into a giant touch screen that can be used to teach. The company also has an interactive website called Promethean Planet with resources for teachers. According to ZDnet.com, a Promethean board costs around $4,000 on average.
According to its website, Promethean has products in 500,000 classrooms and in more than 100 countries. The company was founded in 1997 and had revenue of more than $300 million by 2009. The company has recently expanded into the business and government sectors on top of education.
Sweeney’s opponent speaks out
Sweeney, a Republican, is finishing up his first term as the Post 6 representative on the Cobb school board. His district includes the east Cobb area.
He is being challenged in the May 20 Republican primary by Kevin Nicholas, who works in telecommunications and has three children in the Cobb school system. Because no Democrat is running, the winner will hold the seat from 2015 to 2018.
Nicholas made it clear he believes Sweeney’s actions are unethical.
“This is the latest version of my opponent not being transparent with his constituents and the school district,” Nicholas said. “You had the land issue with 35 acres purchased, and we don’t know what’s going on with the other 20 acres that is being used for the new Brumby Elementary School. They spent $9.4 million for 35 acres and I don’t know what’s going to happen to 20 of them. This is another means of him just not being forthright with his constituents.”
Nicholas works for a technology company himself. His company, PGI, specializes in long-distance conferencing through audio and video technology. He said his job has nothing to do with Cobb schools or education in general.
Nicholas also took issue with Sweeney potentially having to abstain from votes.
“We elect people to vote on critical issues, not to abstain,” Nicholas said. “If we wanted to just abstain, we wouldn’t have someone in our post representing us. It’s an awkward position.”
Perry said none of Sweeney’s actions are illegal under Georgia law.
“There’s what most people consider a conflict of interest and then there’s conflict of interest under the law,” Perry said. “He’s not in violation of the law because he’s a consultant rather than an employee and doesn’t have to disclose his affiliation with Promethean. He derives money from his business, rather than the company. Unfortunately, Georgia law doesn’t make him disclose who his clients are.”
But whether such actions are ethical is another question.
“Most likely, he’s being hired as a consultant because of his relationship with the school system,” said Perry. “If people have the idea you’re serving on the school board so you can gain professionally, they don’t feel that’s public service.”
“I believe that education for our students shouldn’t be influenced by businesses out to make a profit,” Nicholas said.
While stressing that he has no issue with Promethean as a company or with its products, Nicholas said the way those products may be sold to Cobb schools raises big questions.
“If it’s proper technology that can benefit students and teachers through the proper process it should be looked at,” he said. “But certainly not through a back door.”