A case study of the manner in which politicians turn state colleges and universities into political playgrounds can be seen in Georgia where a state assemblyman got his friend a job at Kennesaw State University during a hiring freeze. The woman is still on the payroll despite subsequent budget cuts at the school.
“In July of 2003, a new employee, Ms. Karen Lasher, was placed on the payroll of the Georgia Teacher Center in an unspecified capacity,” Bill Bozarth of Georgia Common Cause reported. “The position filled by Ms. Lasher was never advertised.”
Georgia State Senator Steve Thompson, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, sought employment for his friend, Karen Lasher, at the Georgia Teacher Center at Kennesaw. Thompson also sits on the Board of Regents at Kennesaw.
The two have told the press that they started dating after Lasher was hired at Kennesaw. At the time of the hiring, both said they were “just friends.”
No one at the Georgia Teacher Center can say for sure what Lasher does there. I tried to find out myself by calling her directly, but she has yet to respond to my calls. Although the job, as Bozarth indicates, did not appear in industry want ads, the school posted an internal notice of a “vacancy,” which itself became the subject of some controversy. Lasher’s new job pays $47,000 a year, according to the Cobb County Republican party.
“If Lasher was hired in July 2003,” Kennesaw Professor Paul Lapides asks, “why wasn’t there a job posting for the ‘job’ until Oct./Nov. 2003?” Dr. Lapides serves as director of the Corporate Governance Center at Kennesaw.
Ms. Lasher, Bozarth recalls, was a public school teacher at the Black Widow Elementary School in Cobb County, Georgia. “She was well thought of, as far as I know,” Bozarth says.
Nonetheless the jump in positions from elementary school teacher to college administrator raises questions as does the nature of the work Ms. Lasher performs. When two employees of the Georgia Teacher Center at Kennesaw State questioned the circumstances under which Ms. Lasher was hired, the school dismissed the whistleblowers.
The ostensible reason for their dismissal: budget cuts. Bozarth doesn’t buy it.
“They let three employees go but the three retained were the highest paid,” Bozarth told me. “Their salaries combined come to $215,000.” The Fiscal Year 2005 budget for the Teacher Center comes to $312,000.
One of the whistleblowers, Nerina Mann, came to Common Cause with the information about some of the dubious practices at Kennesaw. A graduate of Kennesaw herself, Mann is currently studying toward a Master’s in Business Administration at night while working at the Teacher Center by day.
“What she is being taught in class at night as she pursues her MBA and what she sees in the office she works in are two different things,” Dr. Lapides sadly observes.
The school has since retained the three that it had originally let go at the end of the last school year, in the wake of some of the publicity surrounding Kennesaw State’s hiring of Lasher. “You’re just at the tip of the iceberg on this,” Bozarth says. “It runs throughout the state university system.”