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OP-ED | Shankar and the ‘Pryor Appearance’

by Terry Cowgill | Jan 13, 2012 10:47am
(10) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion

In a troubled economy, millions of unemployed U.S. workers (13.1 million to be more precise) have, through no fault of their own, lost their jobs and are justifiably grateful for the safety net known as unemployment insurance.

But who would have thought that, for a privileged few anyway, the public-sector safety net extends to those who are facing twin felony charges, have lied to their employer and have abused company equipment?

Such is the case with Ravi Shankar. No, not the legendary Indian sitar player, but the poet-in-residence at Central Connecticut State University.

By all accounts, Shankar, an associate professor of English at CCSU, is a terrific teacher who has inspired young people to be the best writers they can be. He chairs the Connecticut Young Writers Trust, where he has received glowing testimonials from founding chairman Andy Thibault.

But it looks like Shankar has set a very poor example for his students. He was suspended with pay and arrested last September on charges of ordering on a university computer $22,000 worth of tickets to a New Jersey soccer event, hoping that he could sell them off at a profit to cover more than $70,000 in debt, including $30,000 in stock trading losses.

When the scheme fell apart, according to a police affidavit, Shankar went to the cops in June and claimed he had only bought four tickets and that someone had stolen his Discover card to buy the thousands of dollars worth of extra passes.

And wait. It gets worse. After he admitted that he had bought all the tickets in an effort to scalp them, police learned that Shankar had falsely told a university IT specialist that the cops had recommended all his hard drives be wiped clean, leading to evidence-tampering charges — a felony in Connecticut.

Oh, and it gets even worse. In an unrelated incident, Shankar was arrested again a couple months ago in North Haven after he rear-ended a vehicle and fled the scene. So now the professor also faces charges of driving under the influence, evading responsibility and operating an uninsured motor vehicle. He has contested all the charges and remains free on $25,000 bond.

Meanwhile, a CCSU spokesman would only say that Shankar has been placed on paid administrative leave until his legal issues have been resolved, which could mean months or more of the state paying Shankar his $70,000 per year salary and health benefits for little or nothing in return. Why the university feels it cannot further discipline Shankar is beyond me. You don’t have to be a convicted criminal to be fired with cause. If, on top of the unproven criminal allegations, you misuse your employer’s office equipment in an attempt to commit a fraud and then lie to officials and attempt to obstruct the employer’s investigation, shouldn’t that be cause for termination?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the kind of job that allows me to survive that sort of mischief. I guess the denizens of The Academy play by different rules. A tenured professorship: nice gig if you can get it.

* * * * * *

For the last several days, the state’s print and electronic media have been hosting a war of words between the Malloy administration and critics who insist that new education commissioner Stefan Pryor has a conflict of interest because of his past associations with charter schools and a private company that manages them.

My colleague Jonathan Pelto has been hammering away at Pryor for his association with Achievement First, the charter school management company Pryor helped found and for which he served as a board member.

Charter schools are publicly funded niche schools that are operated independently and are partially exempt from certain regulations. Only half the faculty in Connecticut charter schools, for example, must hold standard certification. Many do not belong to labor unions.

Pelto’s point is that, since Pryor co-founded Achievement First and served as an unpaid volunteer on its board, he should recuse himself from taking part in deliberations on applications for charter schools from the company. I guess Pelto is concerned that Pryor cannot possibly be an impartial judge as to the merit of any application from Achievement First since he presumably has friends who are still on the board and he believes in the worthiness of the organization.

But as Pelto himself has acknowledged, the letter of the law essentially says that a conflict of interest occurs only if the public official or a member of his family benefits financially from the questionable association.

But as the state ethics office has confirmed, such is not the case with Pryor, so Pelto has decided to focus on the “appearance of a conflict of interest” — a much more nebulous and subjective argument and one for which the state does not have a legal definition.

I wouldn’t go so far as Gov. Malloy, who called the charges of a conflict “utterly and fantastically ridiculous.” There are some legitimate concerns that Pryor’s past associations might compel him to favor charter schools in general, but charges that he would favor Achievement First have a hollow ring.

One teachers union boss in Bridgeport, Gary Peluchette, might have stumbled onto the truth in assessing his opposition to Pryor: “The best commissioner is someone who has come up through the ranks of public education, not privately funded, non-union charter schools.”

That pretty much sums up the problem with education reform. There are powerful forces who want more of the same while expecting a better result. Right now, I’m on one knee doing my best impression of Tim Tebow, praying that the status-quo crowd will fail.

Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is the editor of ctessentialpolitics.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company.

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(10) Comments

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | January 13, 2012  1:43pm

Terry D. Cowgill

P.S. I have heard from Andy Thibault, founding chairman of the Connecticut Young Writers Trust. He said the trust’s board firmly believes in the presumption of innocence and that the board fully suports Shankar.

posted by: ... | January 13, 2012  5:14pm

...

Great article Terry, the last two paragraphs make up the argument very well. Their are certain people who have disagreed with Malloy’s choice from the outset because he does not follow their path of what is ‘right’ commissioner.

posted by: SocialButterfly | January 14, 2012  12:16pm

Pres.Barack Obama says that unemployment rate at a quoted 8.5% is dropping.  However, for 13.1 million Americans who are unemployed, this play with the unemployment rate—is not encouraging.
The unemployed appear to be downplayed as ploys of reelection fodder.

posted by: jonpelto | January 14, 2012  3:31pm

Terry, thanks so much for highlighting the issue I’ve been raising about the new Commissioner of Education. 

I definitely agree with you that “there are powerful forces” at work in the education reform debate. 

I’m not sure I agree with you that they want “more of the same while expecting a better result” I think both the CEA and AFT have signaled that they support a variety of options to create better schools. 

That said, to be successful, “education reform” certainly requires everyone to come the table willing to find consensus.

As to the issue I’ve raised (Pryor’s conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest), I’d like to point out two things. 

First, DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty also had a ruling from the Ethics Commission saying he had no conflict of interest, but he recognized that the appearance of a conflict is a legitimate concern so he recused himself from making decisions that dealt directly with companies that he had consulted for in the past five years.  In addition he said he would not get directly involved in decisions related to two environmental organizations – including the Connecticut Fund for the Environment BECAUSE he has served on their board of directors.

He received a lot of praise for his decision, a Hartford Courant editorial extolling his decision and praise from the Governor.

A few months later, Pryor faces the same issue – having served on the Achievement First board of trustees.  However this time the Governor calls the call he recuse himself from decisions that directly relate to Achievement First ridiculous.  What’s ridiculous is to cheer one standard a few months ago and now pretend the issue is not relevant now.

Second, Pryor’s relationship with Achievement First is not minor.  His partner in setting up Amistad Academy is not President and CEO of Achievement First and Pryor has served on the board of directors of Achievement First since it began.  Last year, Achievement First’s board approved a strategic plan that calls from going from 20 charter schools to 35. 

There are a number of charter school applications on the Commissioner’s desk – some from Achievement First and some from independent, local groups that wish to form charters.
Pryor deciding which charter schools are approved and which are rejected is, in my mind, most definitely a conflict of interest.  Considering all the work he and his colleagues have done to build up Achievement First , it seems particularly unfair to have someone who developed that plan as an Achievement First person now deciding whether the plan will be implemented.

posted by: ... | January 14, 2012  4:45pm

...

So the Jon it is a question of his moral character you are scrutinizing, not his relationship. You don’t trust his ability to make fair, non-partisan decisions even though he has openly said he is sensitive to those criticism and concerns.

But, I guess we’re at a point where no one should trust anybody with some power to try and do what is best and what is fair. We’re all with our own agendas and not those of the greater public good.

Esty recused himself and put forward 25+ companies he would not deal with as commissioner. These are specific industries. To not allow Pryor to observe the work of all charter schools in CT (which would be the comparable strategy) would be a hindrance on his job. I would agree with Terry that current arguments over Stefan Pryor are only arising from the muck of trying to make something stick to lower his credibility as commissioner. I wonder what anybody ‘wins’ or gains by having him take any action other than serving the state to his best ability. More and more this seems like political fighting than serious policy concerns.

posted by: jonpelto | January 15, 2012  8:11am

JonessAC,

At no time have I ever said that comes to Commissioner Pryor “it is a question of his moral character… not his relationship. “

From everything I’ve read he is an extraordinarily talented man who has proven himself to be a dedicated public servant. 

Nor have I ever said that “I don’t trust his ability to make fair, non-partisan decisions even though he has openly said he is sensitive to those criticism and concerns.”

There are lots of extraordinarily talented men and women - who are dedicated public servants – whose previous activities create a conflict of interest or the perception of a conflict of interest. 

Stefan Pryor is one of the leading forces behind the creation of Achievement First, the charter school management.  He was there at its birth and he has dedicated countless hours to its growth.  I am suspicious of Achievement First, but in no way is Pryor a “bad person” because of his association to that entity.  He lists his role with Amistad and Achievement First on all his bios, he has play a major role on the board and it would appear that he has even given speeches or attended meetings to speak about his experience and dedication to Achievement First.  He was never paid for that work, but has yet to address the issue of whether his expenses were ever covered by the organization of if used his activities as a tax deduction.  But even if he hasn’t benefit financially he has certainly benefited professionally.

That is not a character issues – it’s a conflict issue. 

And finally, I have not said that Pryor should not be allowed to observe the work of all charter schools or abstain from making decisions related to the development of charter schools in Connecticut.  What I did say is that I believe his conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest requires him to abstain from activities that directly benefit Achievement First.

When I was a state legislator, I saw many of my colleagues stand and recuse themselves from the debate and the vote because of the “appearance of a conflict of interest”.  It doesn’t make you bad, but not doing it when you should is bad.  I’m more convinced than ever that Pryor’s relationship with AF is one that requires him to take such an action.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | January 15, 2012  4:52pm

Terry D. Cowgill

Jonathan, I guess it’s a matter of degrees. My recollection was Esty had done work for dozens of firms that might do business with the state under his watch at DEEP. Unlike Pryor, however, Esty had made a good deal of money from those past associations and, based on his employment history, one might reasonably conclude he would want to sign them up as billable clients again after he leaves office.
So you are correct that Esty was not caught by the conflict statute, but the “appearance of a conflict” you speak of is considerably greater because of the financial relationship between Esty and those companies.
As is the case with so many conflicts, it boils down to whether money has changed hands.

posted by: ... | January 15, 2012  4:54pm

...

I understand and respect your opinion Jon. I know you are an expert in this field (much more than myself) and have greater passion than most who talk about it.

It just seems Terry’s ‘highlighting the issue’ (as you describe it) for him was to settle the issue. But your interpretation has been another round of promoting the same arguments you’ve made multiple times at Wait, What? .

You had such enthusiasm in your discussion of heating assistance as a moral fight that was worthy and honorable. You may disagree and I apologize if this offends you, but I still believe that your consistent and constant complaints have a tone of politics, rather than the former crusade to keep low-income heating properly funded.

Many have taken a similar crusade as yours against Esty, even calling for his dismissal on issues much more prominent than this, yet the Malloy administration has fairly and strongly defended those conflicts to the point where they are no longer seen as an issue. I am under the impression that like Terry, this issue has been resolved, but legitimate concerns will always remain and always be question no matter what action he takes.

posted by: SocialButterfly | January 15, 2012  8:35pm

Good for Charter Schools, as many operate without union mandates—which are detrimental to education—as it rewards the good and the bad teachers equally—and forces local taxpayers—to cough up tax increases annually—and forces some teachers to get laid off, as municipal governments scramble to cut bolooned budgets—due to forced teacher and other union employees’ annualraises.

posted by: EdLeadershipcrisis | January 19, 2012  11:46am

If Pryor was such an innovator, why did he essentially cut and past the NJ org chart to give to the CT board yesterday:  See http://www.state.nj.us/education/genfo/overview/
For SBE members to laud such innovative thinking basically shows how ill-informed they are and how easy they are snookered.