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