Former first lady's donation aids son: Katrina funds earmarked to pay for Neil Bush's software program
Ohanian Comment: This is despicable beyond belief: Money laundering so it becomes tax deductible. Don't miss the Dubai Connection.
By Cynthia Leonor Garza
Former first lady Barbara Bush donated an undisclosed amount of money to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund with specific instructions that the money be spent with an educational software company owned by her son Neil.
Since then, the Ignite Learning program has been given to eight area schools that took in substantial numbers of Hurricane Katrina evacuees.
"Mrs. Bush wanted to do something specifically for education and specifically for the thousands of students flooding into the Houston schools," said Jean Becker, former President Bush's chief of staff. "She knew that HISD was using this software program, and she's very excited about this program, so she wanted to make it possible for them to expand the use of this program."
The former first lady plans to visit a Houston Independent School District campus using the Ignite program today to call on local business leaders to support schools and education.
The trip to Fleming Middle School is intended to showcase Bush's commitment to education for both Houston-area and New Orleans evacuee students, according to a press release issued Wednesday by Ignite.
Fleming, which has more than 170 New Orleans students, was one of eight area schools chosen by the Harris County Department of Education to receive a donated COW, or Curriculum on Wheels, multimedia program after Hurricane Katrina.
Neil Bush founded Austin-based Ignite Learning, which produces the COW program, in 1999.
Becker said she wasn't at liberty to divulge how much money the Bush family gave to the hurricane funds, but said the "rest of their donation was not earmarked for anything."
Nationally, some other donors also specified how they wanted their donations spent, Becker said.
For example, one man wanted his money to go to Habitat for Humanity but via the former presidents' fund. Nearly $1 million has been raised for the local fund and more than $120 million for the national.
Regarding the fact that Bush's earmarked donation also benefited her son's company, Becker said, "Mrs. Bush is obviously an enthusiastic supporter of her son. She is genuinely supportive of his program," and has received many letters from educators who support it. Bush "honestly felt this would be a great way to help the (evacuee) students."
Barbara and Neil Bush presented the donated programs to Houston-area schools this winter.
Districts that received the free curriculum include Houston, Alvin, Katy, Pearland and Spring and the New Orleans West charter school.
There are 40 Ignite programs being used in the Houston area, and 15 in the Houston school district, said Ken Leonard, president of Ignite.
Information about the effectiveness of the program, through district-generated reports, was not readily available Wednesday, according to an HISD spokeswoman.
Two years ago, the school district raised eyebrows when it expanded the program by relying heavily on private donations.
In February 2004, the Houston school board unanimously agreed to accept $115,000 in charitable donations from businesses and individuals who insisted the money be spent on Ignite. The money covered half the bill for the software, which cost $10,000 per school.
The deal raised conflict of interest concerns because Neil Bush and company officials helped solicit the donations for the HISD Foundation, a philanthropic group that raises money for the district.
HISD school principals decide for themselves whether to spend their budgeted money on Ignite.
Leonard said that in the past six to eight months, the company has hired national sales representatives across the country — in Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada — in hopes of expanding beyond Texas. Currently, about 80 percent of the company's customers are from Texas.
Last year, Neil Bush reportedly toured former Soviet Union countries promoting Ignite with Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky.
According to the Times of London, Berezovsky, a former Kremlin insider now living in Britain, is wanted on criminal charges in Moscow accusing him of seeking to stage a coup against President Vladimir Putin.
The purpose of today's event is to showcase everyone's efforts in helping the hurricane evacuee students who ended up in Houston, Leonard said.
"We have a role, but we're not the leader in this," Leonard said. He also acknowledged that his company will benefit from the former first lady's visit.
Barbara Bush is expected to observe both teachers and students using the Ignite Learning program while touring classrooms, according to the Ignite press release.
During a short reception, teachers and students will give testimonials about the program and Bush will "encourage community business leaders to have a stronger presence in supporting schools and education," the press release said.
The free-standing instructional tools that are not dependent on the Internet. They include a built-in computer, projector and speakers and come pre-loaded with science and social studies courses.
Cynthia Leonor Garza