Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor, has a big problem.
Pryor co-founded the Amistad Academy, the New Haven charter school and served as the Chairman of its Board of Directors for five years. In turn, the Amistad effort spawned the creation of Achievement First, Inc., the charter school management company that now runs 20 charter schools in Connecticut and New York.
Pryor, while directing Amistad’s Board, was not only a part of the creation and management of Achievement First, but served on its Board of Trustees from 2003 to 2010.
Pryor’s primary partner in the creation of Amistad now serves as the President and CEO of Achievement First.
Late last year, Pryor quietly resigned his Director’s position with Achievement First.
Most importantly, Pryor knows he has a problem.
A weekend article by Brian Lockhart (click for article) reveals that this past October Pryor called Connecticut’s Office of State Ethics to informally discuss whether, as Commissioner, it would be a conflict of interest for him to take action that would directly benefit Amistad Academy, Achievement First or the ten charter schools that Achievement First runs in Connecticut.
Ethics’ staff informed Pryor that, under Connecticut’s narrow conflict law, he had no direct conflict of interest since he had ended his relationship with Achievement First.
The State Department of Education staff quickly followed up in order to get the opinion down on paper and, more recently sought a formal opinion which the Ethics Commission is expected to approve later this month.
While Connecticut law has a very narrow definition of what is considered a direct conflict of interest, it fails to provide any meaningful definition of what creates the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Last summer, Daniel C. Esty, Malloy’s pick to head the Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection faced these very same issues.
Technically, Esty did not have a “legal” direct conflict of interest because he had ended his relationship with the companies that he had consulted for or the organizations in which he had played a significant role.
But Esty recognized that the public is demanding more transparency and honesty in government and that the appearance of a conflict of interest would undermine his credibility as the leader of his agency.
Esty confronted that concern directly and head on by announcing that he would not get involved in any cases that directly related to 26 companies and 2 environmental organizations that he had worked with over the past five years. As he said, the list includes “companies that were clients of my consulting firm – Esty Environmental Partners – who had the potential to do business or are doing business in Connecticut, and organizations for which I served in recent years on the Board of Directors or other advisory role.”
The Hartford Courant was among those who applauded Commissioner Esty’s decision.
In their July 18, 2011 editorial, the Courant wrote that Esty’s decision to recuse himself from “any matter in which he perceives there’s an actual or potential conflict,” was exactly the type of leaders Connecticut needed.
The Courant went on to say Esty’s action was “the principled thing to do. Avoiding conflicts of interest are a must for any commissioner, but especially so in the highly volatile and often politicized realm of environmental protection.”
What was particularly important was that among the environmental groups that Esty recused himself from was the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. Esty had served as a member of the board of directors.
Julie Belaga, a former regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency as well as a former Connecticut State Representative and candidate for governor has been a champion on behalf of the environment and a long-time member of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment’s Board of Directors with Esty. She told WNPR radio thatEsty was doing the right thing because he was avoiding even the thought of a conflict of interest.
The fact is Commissioner Stefan Pryor’s relationship as a Director with Achievement First was far more significant than Esty’s relationship with the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.
For example, just last year, Achievement First released their 2010 Annual Report that included the news that Achievement First’s new strategic plan called for expanding for its present 20 schools that serve 5,400 student to 35 schools serving over 12,000 in the next few years. The report goes on to say that with this growth, Achievement First would be larger than 95 percent of the school districts in the country.
As an Achievement First Board member, Stefan Pryor helped create and adopt that strategic plan, a plan that when fully implemented would increase Achievement First’s revenue from $4 million a year in “management fees” to upwards of $10 million a year.
To achieve its goal, it will be critical for Achievement First to expand in Connecticut.
Now Pryor, a founder and long time member of Achievement First’s Board of Trustees finds himself in the unique position of being able to determine whether that aggressive growth plan will succeed or fail.
Not only is that the appearance of a conflict of interest, but any reasonable person would recognize it as a direct conflict of interest.
At the very least, Commissioner Stefan Pryor must do what Commissioner Dan Esty did and recuse himself from getting involved in any decisions that would benefit Achievement First Inc.