Records: Cobb County School Board paid $1.3M for Promethean products
by Haisten Willis
April 20, 2014 04:00 AM | 7120 views | 11 11 comments | 37 37 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cobb County School Board Post 6 Republican incumbent Scott Sweeney, left, and challenger Kevin Nicholas, right, talk to citizens assembled Thursday morning at Sprayberry High School during a meet and greet candidate forum at the school’s PTA meeting. Sweeney’s ties to a maker of digital whiteboards for schools is in the middle of the heated Republican primary battle between the two candidates. <br> Staff/Kelly J. Huff
Cobb County School Board Post 6 Republican incumbent Scott Sweeney, left, and challenger Kevin Nicholas, right, talk to citizens assembled Thursday morning at Sprayberry High School during a meet and greet candidate forum at the school’s PTA meeting. Sweeney’s ties to a maker of digital whiteboards for schools is in the middle of the heated Republican primary battle between the two candidates.
Staff/Kelly J. Huff
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MARIETTA — An open records request filed by the Marietta Daily Journal confirmed the Cobb County School District has spent money on products from Promethean Ltd., though in a limited capacity and in steadily decreasing amounts.

Cobb School Board Post 6 member Scott Sweeney’s ties to the maker of digital whiteboards for schools is in the middle of a heated Republican primary battle against Kevin Nicholas. Voters will decide who wins the seat May 20.

The MDJ reported last Sunday that Sweeney was hired by Promethean last November as a consultant. While open about his involvement with the company when asked directly, Sweeney said nothing about it given two previous chances to disclose his interests via candidate disclosure forms. Sweeney said he hadn’t mentioned Promethean because he’s a consultant rather than an employee.

Because Promethean sells products directly to school systems, some have called Sweeney’s dealings with the company a conflict of interest.

While the initial story said Promethean hasn’t broken into Cobb schools yet, open records show the company has done business with the school district in the past, with the high point coming in 2010, when Cobb spent almost three-quarters of a million dollars on Promethean products. That amount has dwindled each year since, and had run dry by 2014 Cobb schools spent a total of $1.3 million over four years, from 2010 to 2013, on Promethean products.

While $1.3 million is a significant amount, it is much smaller than contracts signed in neighboring counties. In 2012, the Douglas County School System paid $5.8 million to put whiteboards in 1,178 classrooms. That school system now has a Promethean board in every classroom countywide. For a school district the size of Cobb’s, a similar contract would likely surpass $20 million.

On Tuesday, School Board Chair Kathleen Angelucci said Sweeney’s choices are his own, but, as a board member, she would not work for a vendor that sells to school systems.

“To me, it’s a conflict of interest,” she said.

School board Vice Chair Randy Scamihorn also mentioned during an interview he doesn’t see the district spending any more money on digital whiteboards because newer technology now hitting the market can serve the same function at half the price.

Calls and emails sent to the company seeking information on new product lines were not immediately returned.

Cobb Schools Foundation links with Promethean

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 schools leaders and Promethean as a problem.

“I don’t see it as a conflict of interest,” she said, adding that both her husband and Marshall served on the foundation long before they became involved with Promethean. She said she doesn’t know what Sweeney does for the company.

Overall, the district pays the Cobb Schools Foundation $136,000, according to Scamihorn, but the foundation only raises $150,000 to $175,000 for the district. Scamihorn and Angelucci said they’re looking into the foundation and will know more in a month or two.

A Form 990 filed by the nonprofit shows that from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012, the Cobb Schools Foundation actually lost money, taking in $459,072 while spending $536,896. Foundation Chair John Crooks declined comment about the group’s finances until after a scheduled meeting with the Cobb school board April 24.

Post 6 race becoming hostile

Meanwhile, Sweeney’s opponent, Nicholas, faces attacks concerning his own business and political dealings. Sweeney supporters point out that Nicholas’ employer, PGI, has a section on its webpage labeled “education and government” touting use of its products in the public sector.

Nicholas previously said he wasn’t aware of any business his company does with school systems, adding, if it does, he isn’t involved.

In a follow-up interview, he conceded PGI may market to school systems, but reiterated his other points.

“PGI has thousands of employees. It’s listed on the New York Stock Exchange,” Nicholas said. “We do not have any business with Cobb County schools. I’m not involved in the education space; I’m a senior director for channel sales. Does the company work in the education space? We may. Being on the NYSE, I’m sure we work in many areas. I do not work in the education space. If we do sign a contract with a school system, I don’t get paid to do that.”

The company’s telecommunications products are made for long-distance conferencing. If a school system did use PGI, he said, it would be on a small scale and would never see widespread use in classrooms.

“Our products are used by businesses for collaborations, video conferencing and audio conferencing,” said Nicholas, who has three children in Cobb schools.

Sweeney was asked by the MDJ this week if he would release his contract with Promethean in the interest of transparency. Sweeney said his contract was “confidential” but maintains that it includes no commission element.

Nicholas feels Sweeney should have released the contract and should have talked with the rest of the school board before working with the company, rather than telling them about his connection to Promethean after he was hired. Nicholas is an at-will employee with PGI and doesn’t have a contract himself.

The relationship between the two candidates seems to be getting strained.

On the campaign trail and on his website, kevin4kids.com, Nicholas has touted his title as House District 43 Chairman for the Cobb Republican party. Sweeney, after finding out House district chairmen are banned from campaigning for a candidate, launched complaints to the party.

“The 43rd House District Chair is clearly acting in a manner that demonstrates support or partiality for himself as one of two Republican candidates for the contested county office,” he wrote in an email to party leaders.

Kevin4kids.com now lists Nicholas as the former district chairman.

“I wasn’t aware of it,” he said. “I just misspoke, but we took care of it immediately when we heard about this.”

Thursday night, Nicholas skipped out on a candidate forum, saying the moderator, JoEllen Smith, is a Sweeney supporter based on her Facebook posts.

With a month to go before voters decide a winner on May 20, both candidates are working to get their message out, and increasingly seem to be at odds with each other.

Who is Promethean Ltd.?

Mission: Promethean markets digital whiteboards as teaching tools to school systems around the world. It also markets curriculum-based software such as Promethean Planet. According to its website, Promethean has products in 500,000 classrooms and in more than 100 countries. A Promethean whiteboard costs about $4,000, according to ZDnet.com.

Headquarters: Blackburn, England, with U.S. headquarters in Atlanta

Ownership: Publicly traded on the London Stock Exchange

Founded: 1997

Revenue: $237 million in 2013, down 40 percent from a peak of $395 million in 2010

Employees: 850

Amount CCSD has spent on Promethean products:

In 2010: $774,768

In 2011: $324,850

In 2012: $138,930

In 2013: $86,381

In 2014: $0

Total over last five years: $1.3 million

Comments
(11)
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C. Nicholas-Welkis
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April 22, 2014
Scott Sweeney needs to reflect on the reason WHY he was elected to the board almost four years ago.

Mr. Sweeney won his seat because THE PEOPLE stood up and demanded their legal rights be honored and demanded transparency and honesty from our then school board representative, Dr. John Crooks. Dr. Crooks' actions and disregard for the public's wishes and lack of TRANSPARENCY led to legal grounds for a recall effort.

And as a concerned citizen, I and many others stood up to Dr. Crooks disregard for our rights as his electorate.

Subsequent to the recall efforts advancing, Dr. Crooks did not run for re-election and Mr. Sweeney was the "golden boy" successor of the East Cobb political inner-circle. Ties here run deep and one day you may be the apple of their eye and the next day you may be on the outs. Everyone is replaceable. Mr. Sweeney should refect on that as well.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Sweeney has apparently lost his way and has not consistently displayed the integrity we expect and deserve from our elected officials. Case in point is the Terrell Mill land deal. Although it was legally defensible to keep the discussion in Executive Session, however it was clearly unethical to not vet this with the public in advance. Another issue is his ties to a technology vendor and previous non-disclosure of his role and any conficts of interests.

And to provide some context and disclosure,

1) YES, I was the chairperson of the Committee to Recall Dr. John Crooks, and

2) YES, I am the wife of former Democratic candidate, Dr. Ricky Welkis, and

3) YES, I am the sister of Mr. Kevin Nicholas.

I am no longer in Mr. Sweeney's electorate, due to re-districting, however his post and decisions clearly impact my children due to residing in the East Cobb Middle and Wheeler attendance zones.

In a nutshell, Kevin has the integrity, knowledge, and heart to do what's best for our kids. He's the real deal, not smoke and mirrors.

And in support of this, our family has stood up, put our money where our mouth is and have made a stand in our community to ensure fair and just treatment. Past actions are also often a solid predictor of the future. Kevin has the integrity and ambition to turn the ship around for the betterment of our children.
anonymous
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April 22, 2014
The Promethean spending went down because they changed what they were buying probably. The schools pay millions for all kinds of infrastructure and supplies don't they? Are you going to dig into every purchase over a million dollars and search for a conspiracy on all those as well?
Follow more $$
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April 21, 2014
Look deeper into EDCO over the past few years then deeper into RM Education then deeper into Computrac.

Same people different company names. Dell employee went to Computrac then became RM, then they left RM and started EDCO. Look at the principals in the organizations and their relationships inside of CCSD. Add them up. You might want to then look at some VIN numbers on cars being driven by CCSD members and see where and who purchased them.
Follow the $
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April 20, 2014
OK,now look at purchases from EDCO over the past few years as well as Dell. And see what has been purchased from EDCO
Look Closer
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April 20, 2014
Please pay attention to the Foundation, the executive director, her husband and the Rev., Dr. Crooks. Sweeney is gone and obviously not that effective where Cobb is concerned.
Consider
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April 20, 2014
There is a lot of smoke and mirrors in the series of stories which attacks Scott Sweeney, but in the words of a famous 1980's commercial, "Where's the beef"?

First and foremost, why there is a 'conflict of interest' for an elected official to have a client who has done ZERO consulting work business with Cobb since he took them on. In fact, according to Mr. Scamihorn, it does not seem that there will ever be any purchases made from this company due to changes in technology. Thus, to ask Sweeney to allow the public to review his contract is silly and naive.

Further, it seems that those who have an ax to grind, are relying on seemingly childish speculations of what could happen or may happen. Sorry to let these conspiracy driven citizens down, but there really are no monsters under your child's bed and the tooth fairy is only for fun (ouch that revelation may hurt).

Finally, everyone understands that politics is an engaging sport and the competitors will get bruised and bloodied in the process while defending or advocating for a policy or position. However, no points are won from taking unfounded, cheap shots at a man's personal life. To imply a lack of fidelity based on comments made in social media is shameful and beneath the dignity of our community. We are better than that, no matter who wins!
Really Now
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April 20, 2014
Rumor is that Nicholas accepted the invitation to attend the PTA forum Thursday a long while back.

JoEllen Smith was the scheduled moderator and that has been known for some time, yet Nicholas objected the day of the forum.

The day of the forum, the PTA switched moderators to accommodate Nicholas demand. Nicholas called 5-10 minutes before the forum started to say he wasn't coming.

As one who attended the forum and wanted to hear Sweeney and Nicholas speak, I was extremely disappointed with Nicholas - show up next time.

Sweeney cited Nicholas "empty chair" during the forum noting the similarity of Clint Eastwood at the GOP convention.
Funny Stuff !
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April 20, 2014
This is really pretty funny. Nicholas says that he's a senior director of his firm yet he "WASN'T AWARE" his firm does business in education even though his firm's education involvement is clearly noted on his company's website. He Says his company "MAY" work in the education space, when they do. What is Nicholas trying to hide?

Then, he states he "WASN'T AWARE" he was violating GOP rules.

I want my school board representative to have a clue. Clearly, Nicholas doesn't.
In agreement.
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April 20, 2014
Nicholas lobbied hard for the HD43 Chairman position, attended one Executive Committee meeting, then used the position as a platform to run for public office.
No big deal
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April 20, 2014
I personally would not vote for Sweeney based on the fact that he promised to stop administrator pay outs for vacation pay at a whooping 7 million per year and didn't stick to that promise. As far as Promethean goes, they are a great company and we use their products in our classroom. I wish we had more of their products available. I think if we are going to talk about conflicts of interest, David Morgan has had many conflicts of interest, but he is still there!
@ No big deal
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April 20, 2014
How does one board member stop anything? It takes at least 4.

A few years ago, the board discussed the vacation accrual and no change was recommended by any board member. If your points had any merit, someone would have recommended a change.

The vacation accrual expense is not $7 million per year. It's vacation earned, yet not taken.
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