Tuesday, August 24, 2004


What did you do on YOUR summer vacation? One of Nebraska’s most prominent school superintendents went to Palm Springs for free.

According to a July 23 report in the Dallas Morning News, Ken Bird, superintendent of Omaha’s District 66 public schools, received an all-expenses paid trip to a resort hotel in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and a $2,000 consulting fee to spend three days talking to companies eager to do business with school districts.

Bird was among superintendents around the country, especially from wealthier areas, who were brought to the Palm Springs area. They were brought there by a Grand Island-based company for the event, according to the article, “Superintendents Get $2,000 Consulting Fees to Hobknob With Vendors.”

The company is Education Research and Development Institute. ERDI was founded by Mike Kneale, a Bird associate from Nebraska special education circles. Kneale is a former superintendent in Holdrege and Grand Island who now works as a motivational speaker. Kneale, former president of the Nebraska Association of School Administrators, also has been active on the Nebraska Educational Telecommunications Commission, the TeamMates mentoring program and other statewide groups.

The vendors he brings regularly to places like Rancho Mirage sell textbooks, computers, continuing education programs, food and other goods and services to school districts. They pay Kneale’s company for the uninterrupted business and social time with superintendents who control hundreds of millions of dollars of school contracts every year.

According to the Dallas article, business ethicists say the conference creates the appearance that companies and superintendents have formed an exclusive club with the potential to affect the contracts awarded by districts.

"I find it troubling that money from the private sector is finding its way into superintendents' pockets," Diane Swanson, a business professor and founding chair of the Ethics Initiative at Kansas State University, told the Dallas paper. "There is something wrong with blurring that boundary with a cozy group of people who may not be operating at arm's length."

According to the article, some states require school superintendents to disclose all sources of income regularly on a publicly-available document. However, according to Frank Daley of the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, Nebraska does not have such a requirement. On the other hand, outside income, consulting fees, junkets and other extras are required to be reported by Nebraska state senators and various county and state officials who are involved in contracting and procurement, Daley said.

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