Maryland’s Elusive Classroom Screen Safety

Here’s an update on the status of legislation — the first of its kind in the nation — passed by the Maryland General Assembly during its 2018 session.  There was overwhelming support for the bill, so it’s discouraging to learn from http://www.screensandkids.us that, due to the lobbying of the Coalition for School Networking (CoSN), our state’s legal mandate to protect students is being ignored.

Read more here.

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No Bids, No Signed Contracts, Scarce Selection Docs: Audit report reveals unsound digital curricula payouts at BCPS

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UPDATED: Not solid, nor sound. A long-awaited external audit of Baltimore County Public Schools has noted limited findings on the timing of employee financial disclosure filings, with procurement practices touted by the school administration as “fiscally solid.” Yet the 200-plus page auditors’ report clearly does not support district claims of “sound procurement” overall.

The report lists a mess of criticisms over wanton employee travel spending far above school policy; a lack of district oversight of procurement card transactions; unsubstantiated piggyback contracts; and a litany of multimillion dollar curricula spending with no signed contracts and very little documentation on why the vendors were selected — curricula increasingly supplied by edtech companies that sponsor conferences and serve on panels widely attended by BCPS administrators. A clean bill of health this is not. Are we being “Barred?” 

UPDATE: For a stellar deep analysis of the audit, including rampant travel-related and BCPS document purge issues, see this new Baltimore Post article by investigative reporter Ann Costantino.

In terms of problematic high-dollar spending, a primary concern flagged by auditors in “observations” include: Curriculum & Instruction, the department that Verletta White oversaw as Chief Academic Officer during the scope of the audit. White now has oversight as interim superintendent. Among other concerns in the audit, on p. 26-27:Written contracts, including acceptance of standard terms and conditions, are a critical component of risk management. There is no written contract for curriculum purchases” for several curricula contracts reviewed, including “Mathematics Supplemental Resources,” known as DreamBox.

BCPS payouts to DreamBox, a much-criticized math platform, mushroomed from $635,000 in 2014, soon after former Superintendent Dallas Dance launched the laptop program, to double that by 2016, and hitting $3.2 million barely a year later in 2017. (See audit appendix here). This is the company that Dance, later convicted of perjury, met with as part of his paid affiliation with the controversial Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI), according to The New York Times. And White — whose consulting with ERDI led to an ethics violation —  pressed hard for the nearly $2 million increase in Summer 2017, when she took the helm, asking the Board of Education to approve the expanded contract spending authority. Expenditures on DreamBox are among ongoing tens of millions in no-bid curricula contract spending authorities with ERDI clients.

Again, with “no written contract for curriculum purchases?”

Also noted for the awarding of multimillion dollar curricula deals: “Very little pre-procurement activity documentation is maintained for curriculum purchases.” These procedures do not follow BCPS’ established business practices, the audit noted, and are not aligned with “traditional procurement best practices.” This criticism applied specifically to six curricula deals — a third of the 18 various contract spending authorities reviewed by auditors. Related documents can be found at BCPS here.

A note to county and state officials and school board members — while a limited finding related to any violations of state laws so far is welcome — please do not allow the spinning of the post-audit message to foster continued multi-million dollar no-bid curricula contracts, with little to no track record on how selected or tracking of products or services, and few if any contracts actually signed. (!) A focused Phase 2 audit, as recommended previously and set to go before the board for approval, is clearly needed.

Some fixes are being pursued by the district, including more oversight of unauthorized spending with procurement “credit cards,” or P-Cards, p. 30-33 (why that issue wasn’t found in the 33 routine audits White cites is clearly a concern. With those 33 audits, seems much of this would have been corrected previously). Overnight travel will now be pre-approved, White said in a video. Good thing: The audit found that nearly all employees were spending up to three times the federal General Services Administration rate, which BCPS policy follows. On p. 34 of the audit:

Does the hotel rate exceed the GSA rate in effect for the geographic location in which the hotel stays occurred? Yes, 91.9 percent. No, 8.1 percent.” That included a $559 night stay just down the road in Washington, DCtriple the rate at that time. Fiscal responsibility, anyone?

The issue of piggybacked “cooperative contracts” also reveal questionable selection processes, including a lack of documented rationale for avoiding bids or linking the two contracts. The audit (p. 28) notes that BCPS has “not established a procedure to document the consideration of pre-procurement and contractual details of the underlying piggybacked contract. BCPS may not be able to demonstrate its compliance with Annotated Code of Maryland Section 5.112.” BCPS says it will maintain better documentation. (Again, if this brushes up against state law, what were all those national “procurement awards” for, anyway?)

BCPS’ “management” response to the curricula spending issue in the BCPS-hired audit is particularly vague and insufficient: “Management agrees that the maintenance of documentation will assist in demonstrating compliance with Policy and Rule 6002,” the rule BCPS cites when allowing numerous no bid-contracts for curricula.

This is not about who becomes the next permanent superintendent. Yet there is an ongoing problem at BCPS: Vague and sometimes unfulfilled district leadership promises or even pushback following Maryland Office of Legislative Audits reports, which cited the continuing BCPS practice of allowing no-bid or single-source contracts, despite concerns about a need for “fairness and integrity.”

Maryland legislative auditors in 2015 (and previously) recommended that BCPS seek bids for any contracts higher than $25,000, as aligning to BCPS policy overall. 

In that 2015 report, conducted prior to the laptop program, BCPS officials defended various procedures to not seek bids for numerous services and contracts, saying their procedures were compliant with the law. The State OLA found a need to respond with a strong follow-up “Auditors comment” — see full citation and link below.

“A comprehensive procurement policy requiring competitive procurements for all types of purchases is a recognized best practice and it helps ensure fairness and integrity in the expenditure of public funds,” the report stated.

“Other Maryland school systems have established comprehensive policies, including competitive procurement requirements for service contracts. BCPS’ apparent reluctance to establish a policy requiring competitive procurement for all service contracts is perplexing given that its procurement manual already requires it to obtain price quotes for lower cost services (that is, services valued at less than $25,000).

OLA Audit: https://www.ola.state.md.us/Reports/Schools/BCPS15.pdf

Thomas J. Barnickel III, CPA, Legislative Auditor: p. 33-35

**Procurement Reform letter and report.

http://procurement-reform.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/MD-BCPS-Audit-July-2015-excerpt.pdf

See addendum, p. 33-35:

“Analysis

“BCPS had not established a comprehensive procurement policy that requires competitive procurement of certain services or documentation of justifications for not using competitive procurements.”

Recommendation 3
We recommend that BCPS amend its existing policies to require competitive procurement methods to be used for all contracts for services. 

(Side note: this response, in which BCPS refuses to follow the OLA’s recommendations). 

  1. Response 3
    BCPS complies with all applicable state, federal, and local statutes. State law is silent as to the purchase of services valued at $25,000 or more and BCPS’ Policy 3210, Purchasing Guidelines, Section VI., provides that BCPS shall have the option to issue bids, requests for proposals, or solicit price quotations for any requirements that do not require formal bids. BCPS’ Rule 3210, Purchasing Guidelines, Section V., provides for the establishment of procedures for informal bids, RFPs, and price quotations and these are incorporated in Purchasing Procedure 3210.006.

Auditor’s Comment:
Our report finding did not indicate non-compliance with State statutes by BCPS, but questioned the lack of a policy requiring the use of a competitive procurement process for all service contracts. A comprehensive procurement policy requiring competitive procurements for all types of purchases is a recognized best practice and it helps ensure fairness and integrity in the expenditure of public funds. Other Maryland school systems have established comprehensive policies, including competitive procurement requirements for service contracts. BCPS’ apparent reluctance to establish a policy requiring competitive procurement for all service contracts is perplexing given that its procurement manual already requires it to obtain price quotes for lower cost services (that is, services valued at less than $25,000).”

____________________

Howard County and other Maryland entities have been criticized for no-bid or piggyback contracts as well. 

Howard County, for example, was cited for no-bid contracts. Also note this related state audit on spending on unused/misused tech by a government agency. “Legislative auditors say Maryland’s Department of Human Services mishandled state contracts and unnecessarily spent nearly $5 million — sometimes without getting anything in return,” the Sun noted. The 2017 audit “found the agency’s handling of a huge IT project “resulted in DHS paying approximately $4 million more than necessary for one project that was ultimately cancelled.”

Sounds familiar for ScholarChip ID, the failed lanyard ID program, where about $4 million in public tax dollars has been spent, though the unwieldy student IDs were dropped, attendance kiosks sent back, and software glitchy. The services overall,  “ultimately cancelled?” For more on overall STAT spending and ScholarChip woes, see this summary.

_____________________

And lastly, in an especially odd twist, some of the school board members were cited for filing financial disclosure forms “late,” several months prior to actually assuming office. BCPS reported only an April 30 deadline date. Board Vice Chair Julie Henn noted in a post on her public Facebook page: “Before I even applied for appointment to the Board, my 2015 financial disclosure (which was not required prior to appointment) was five months late and was flagged as such.”

— JCS

Another ERDI? BCPS Affiliate Brokers Edtech Company Access to Schools

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UPDATED: Baltimore County Public Schools recently touted yet another education technology award for three top administrators who have pushed the controversial laptop program known as STAT — locally and at conferences nationwide.
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Trouble is: the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), which granted the “award,” also offers education tech companies face-to-face or “virtual” access to school leaders via paid “sponsorship” levels: “Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze.”
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Another case of pay-to-play?
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CoSN “sponsors,” according to their website, include tech firms doing business with BCPS: Schoology, CDW-G, HP, SAFARI Montage, Microsoft, Cisco, and others that are paid nearly $2 million annually in license fees alone, with increases slated for next year’s controversial proposed BCPS budget.
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Isn’t this cosy?
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Check out this tweeted image too of BCPS IT “leaders” yucking it up last week at the CoSN Conference in Portland, Oregon. Who is paying for all this? (See postscript below, with a whopping $1.75 million in employee travel and conference-related costs proposed for next budget year alone).
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And this, during the same weeks Baltimore County struggles to cover BCPS teacher salary increases for next year, as well as find funds to pay much-needed student counselors or build new schools — overall, facing difficult budget choices about what dire needs to fund or not to fund in the county’s public schools:

Mar 31

CETL Team six fills the elevator

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In a move reminiscent of industry-related “awards” claimed by former superintendent Dallas Dance, consider the latest BCPS PR missive: “James Corns, executive director of information technology for Baltimore County Public Schools, Ryan Imbriale, executive director of innovative learning, and Jeanne Imbriale, BCPS director of enterprise applications, recently earned the Certified Education Technology Leader (CETL) designation, awarded by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN),” according to a March BCPS press release. (In the image above: Imbriales back left. Corns on the right with his CETL badge.)
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Earning the Certified Education Technology Leader certification demonstrates a commitment to bringing 21st century learning to our nation’s schools,” said Keith Krueger, CAE, chief executive officer of CoSN. “Because of the CETL recertification requirements, certified leaders pledge to stay current in this ever-changing field of education technology.”
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Here is how CoSN also advertises access to school leaders for companies who hope to market edtech wares:
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CoSN sponsorships provide unique opportunities to reach decision makers in the K-12 education technology market. We offer our sponsors:

*  Valuable marketing opportunities by providing access to education technology leaders virtually and at face-to-face meetings.

* Increased visibility in the K-12 education market.
* Stronger understanding of the education marketplace and trends impacting companies.
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Four annual sponsorship packages are available: Platinum, Gold, Silver, and Bronze. There are also stand-alone sponsorship opportunities for leadership initiatives, Annual Conference, regional CTO clinics, national awards, scholarships, CETL certification, advocacy, and international activities.”
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Is there a specific corporate sponsor for the CETL certifications of the three taxpayer-paid BCPS employees?
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How can conflicted cross-germination connections possibly continue?
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The controversial Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI) brokers similar private company access to public school decision makers, as reported by The New York Times. That included ERDI conferences, panels, and face-to-face meetings with Dance, who was later convicted of perjury related to financial disclosure forms. Current Interim Superintendent Verletta White was later cited for ethics violations for undisclosed income from ERDI. Among other criticized contracts in various districts across the country, ERDI clients have been awarded more than $60 million in no-bid BCPS contract spending authorities. 
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According to ERDI offerings: “Panels of expert superintendents provide honest, candid insight and feedback that clients typically incorporate to upgrade their products and services and to modify their marketing plans . . . In addition to the panel session, ERDI conferences include different social events to help clients truly harness the power of networking with these top educational leaders.” For more info, see ERDI About Us.
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Ongoing questionable relationships between public school admins and industry groups paid by for-profit entities to gain access to such leaders raise questions about whether anyone has learned anything about ethics, potential conflicts-of-interest, spending priorities, or biased approaches to educating children in Baltimore County Public Schools.
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Despite the fact that the laptops and digital curricula are not improving student learning outcomes and is strangling the district financially, Corns did no fewer than four videos promoting the BCPS tech initiative and related from the CoSN conference, posted via EdScoop on YouTube here. In the first, he speaks in near-spiritual terms about BCPS One being “platform-agnostic” and allowing “students a uniform experience as they’re working through their daily practice.”
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For CoSN “sponsor” firms and BCPS vendors, including recently contracted Schoology related to BCPS One, see BCPS chart, 2019-20 Information Technology Software Licenses Fees, at end of this board member Q & A here. Among other fee increases: nearly $62,000 more requested for 2019-20 for CoSN sponsor SAFARI Montage, rising to $473,800. Former BCPS IT director Lloyd Brown is now that company’s VP of “Digital Strategies.”
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For another glimpse of ironic travesty, see this: Ryan Imbriale on a panel at the January 2019 FETC conference titled: “Fast Track: How to Ramp Up Your District’s Digital Transformation.”
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Bottom line: Taxpayer-funded junkets to promote an overpriced, underperforming edtech program in public schools — after hundreds of millions of dollars wasted — in the midst of a severe county budget crisis?
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Baltimore County — facing an $81 million shortfall and a litany of desperate needs in public schools — must act. It’s time for a much closer look at BCPS employee travel, spending, and the appearance of conflicts-of-interest: Local media, state and county auditors, Board of Education, Baltimore County elected officials?

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Joanne C. Simpson
To be updated. 
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Follow the Money and “Awards”
More on CoSN’s deep-pocket tech connections here from Missouri Education Watchdog, links and resources within.
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Postscript Budget Note:

For more on BCPS employee travel costs: FYI: See “Responses to board member questions,” # 20: ‘Over-night travel per diem, Conference registration fees, Professional dues’ — for exactly which departments and employee positions? Note that this amount does not even include mileage, for mostly local travel and events. See earlier budget analysis on costly administrator travel expenditures here and here.

Travel and conference-related travel in proposed budget for FY20 alone: ~ $1,750,000

Source: http://www.bcps.org/budget/FY20/responses_to_board_member_questions_fy20_operating_020119.pdf
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Additional BCPS employee travel and promotional links: 

Other slated panels and edtech conferences, search for employee names, including Ryan Imbriale, FETC 2020 here and at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) here. See Imbriale’s testimonial ad for ISTE “Membership” here too, promotions Dance also did, to much criticism. “I really believe that ISTE is serving all educators all around the world when it comes to finding a place for digital learning,” Ryan Imbriale.

Schools Laptop Program Was Never Financially Feasible, reports indicate

  • finances, people, savings and bankruptcy concept - close up of male hand holding burning dollar cash money over black background

The Baltimore County Public Schools budget is facing a money crunch and growing controversy after the county executive warned of an $81 million shortfall in the county budget next year. Yet this crisis has been a long time coming for the 25th largest school district in the nation, which nonetheless has been requesting an 11.5 percent increase — or a whopping $91 million more — in taxpayer dollars.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun and in various statements, said he has a “responsibility to craft a balanced budget for the county,” noting that the schools’ proposed budget “is not fiscally sustainable.”

He’s right. Yet how did this all happen?

In large part, the culprit is wanton spending on the laptop-per-student program known as STAT, which a review of records indicates was never financially sustainable long-term. When the program was launched in 2014 by now-disgraced Superintendent Dallas Dance, promises of a “21st Century” transformation in learning were made here in Baltimore County and across the country. Five years and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars later, the program has expanded despite poor student test results and other flagging outcomes. After much debate (see postscripts), the board recently approved a controversial revised proposed budget to send to the county that still includes massive funding for STAT. How exactly did we get here?

Various analyses since 2016 by the Baltimore County Office of the Auditor — as well as BCPS budgets, and other school system records — indicate that the early years of the STAT rollout were partly propped up because the budget was apparently padded with unused funds built up over a few years, since Dance first arrived in July 2012, though he said little to nothing about a digital conversion at that time.

That included insufficiently funding textbooks, transportation support, and special education departments for starters, records show. Such “under appropriation” was criticized by county auditors. One concern then: Why would BCPS keep coming back to the county to ask for tens of millions more than it was actually spending? Numerous BCPS redirects from “all areas of operation,” and tens of millions in emergency funds were also siphoned off as recently as last year to pay for the experimental, edtech industry-oriented initiative, records show. (In the 2018-19 budget, for example, BCPS relied on “the use of an unprecedented level” of the district’s emergency or “fund balance as a revenue source” for STAT and other costs. “Such a fund balance, by the school system’s own projections, will not be available at a similar magnitude in future years,” a May 2018 county auditors’ report noted.

Now, among other issues, the padding and raiding have apparently run their courses and a possible “fake feasibility” seems evident.  The school administration under Dance and Interim Superintendent Verletta White — also a digital education supporter affiliated with numerous outside ed-tech industry groups and consulting firms (see links below) — expected Baltimore County to greatly expand and commit its support of the laptop program right about now, according to STAT planning documents, administration statements, and the BCPS Digital Conversion/STAT budget. (See Towson Flyer op-ed on STAT costs, with link to the actual conversion budget within, details in postscript 1 below).

The bottom line seems to be: The BCPS administration has spent beyond its means, gambling that the county would pick up a higher tab for the digital initiative once the money started running out — and opportunity costs became clearly unsustainable for teachers, students, and a public school district with so many dire needs — sparking recent protests

Auditors’ Alerts

As far back as 2016 (summary and link to report here), county auditors noted that spending on STAT had risen, “while funding for instructional [salaries] has remained relatively flat, and funding for the Instructional Textbooks & Supplies program has declined.” Such materials and supplies have been “pinched,” the report noted.

The auditors’ analysis released in May 2016 questioned a budget gap averaging $20 million a year between what BCPS requested and what was spent. (That number is far more than annual trims to textbooks, which the district claimed the devices were supposed to replace). For several areas outlined in pages 7-12 of that analysis, the auditors noted: BCPS’s “budget document does not align to its actual spending patterns in recent years.” 

For example, a chart under Mid-Level Administration “professional services” revealed that an average $900,000 was requested by BCPS in fiscal years 2013, 2014 and 2015—yet no money was spent in that category. Similar amounts were nonetheless requested by district administrators year to year.

Meanwhile, annual requests for “operational supplies” related to textbooks topped $14 million annually in those years. Yet the actual amounts spent only averaged $700,000. In FY 2015, only 3.5 percent was spent in that category, with nearly $13 million left over, the auditors’ analysis revealed.

Money not spent meant services not rendered. A similar “under appropriation” showed up in Special Education programs, where BCPS requested a very specific $367,404 in FY 2015 for student transportation “professional services.” Yet only $15,000 was spent. That “consistent” pattern, as noted by auditors, applied to previous years as well.

Today, that money has apparently been long spent out, and there’s nowhere else to squeeze, especially as constituents ask for funding for many other needs, some previously slashed, including: counselors, per-pupil student workers, transportation funds, special education needs, breakfasts for needy students, school discretionary expenses, support for a growing population of English-as-a-second-language students, promised teacher raises, staffing levels, security personnel and measures, and on and on. These are true needs, with only so much money in the pot. Is that what the digital conversion playbook counted on to pressure expanded funding? The larger question: Should county taxes be increased to shore up the troubled and costly laptop and digital curricula program? If any tax rates are raised, that funding should go to building new schools to replace long-dilapidated Lansdowne, Towson, and Dulaney High Schools, among others. 

In his op-ed, County Executive Olszewski noted realities for trimming the schools’ budget: “There are such opportunities. One example: The proposed budget for BCPS administration is more than $56 million, reflecting a 53 percent increase from what we spent on administration just seven years ago. In just a few years, we’ve also spent nearly $300 million to provide devices to students in every school as part of the STAT initiative, including the accompanying infrastructure, software and support personnel costs. Considering our front-line needs, it’s time that we re-allocate some of these resources where they are needed most: the people delivering classroom instruction.”

The Eighth Conversion of STAT: The Budget

A recent article in the Baltimore Post pointed out records that showed the schools’ “budget was an integral part of the laptop initiative. In order for the transformation to be successful, Dance said eight internal school “conversions” would have to align to STAT’s goal. Those eight conversions: curriculum, instruction, assessment, professional development, infrastructure, policy, communications and budget.”

According to a transcript from an edtech conference panel — led by Dance, who was later convicted of perjury, and fellow administrator White, who was later cited for ethics violations related to outside consulting for the Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI) — “Dance said he slashed school system programs in order to free up system funds for the STAT program,” noted the Post. “That money, he said, came from cutting 300 of 500 programs from the school system.”

The 2016 panel recording reveals Dance discussing how to pressure elected officials for money. “At the end of the day, then we were able to go to our funding authorities and — my budget comes entirely from the state and from the county — and we were able to go to them and say: ‘this is what we want to do — but this is what we have done internally to redirect funds in order to pay for it (STAT)  — and this is ultimately what it will cost if you were to commit to doing this with us.

The STAT program has cost well over $300 million in the first several years — including laptops, wifi infrastructure, digital curricula, personnel costs, edtech conference travel, and various expenditures that could create a perpetual burden for the county. Records show such digital initiative costs are sometimes tucked, or hidden, into the annual school budgets as “resources,” “other resources,” “textbooks,” “supplies,” “services,” “contracted services,” or simply “Other.”

Over time, some members of the Board of Education past and present have questioned the spending on STAT and pressed for scaling back the rollout or otherwise pulling back the ratios of laptops per students in the elementary grades, among other revisions to address rising costs. (Laptops are now to be two-per-student in grades 1 and 2 starting next year, though White had also alarmingly pressed for more devices in kindergarten–at an apparent price tag of more than $4 million. See Postscript 2). Previous school board member Michael Collins made a prescient statement in a January 2016 board meeting: “I believe very strongly in technology in schools, but we don’t know how this is all working out. At all. And the info we are getting from the data so far is not good. We are just going awfully fast, and we are going to be spending a couple of billion dollars — that’s with a B — at least on this program.” See other details regarding costs here.

Transparency and fiscal responsibility is indeed needed.

This summary is merely a glimpse and the specifics might change. That’s why county auditor reports, past and current schools’ budgets, a pending outside audit, and other fiscal documents must be fully reviewed by the county and state (and outside media), since taxpayers would continually be on the line for such “forever costs.” The county auditors’ analyses of BCPS budgets, for example, revealed similar problems and concerns when released in May 2017 and in 2018, when questions regarding underfunded retiree health benefits and a pending fiscal crisis were first raised publicly. An Office of the Auditor analysis of the FY2020 schools’ budget is expected to be prepared for the county council and administration this upcoming May. Be on the lookout.

Technology options are needed in schools, but not at the price of irresponsible misspending of public dollars and possible malfeasance.

Concerning Conflicts : Updated

One increasingly relevant concern: Interim Superintendent Verletta White, a highly experienced educator and leader, has nonetheless fostered ongoing affiliations with digital education industry groups, a “professional consultancy firm,” as well as  digital curricula and related efforts despite past controversies over outside consulting. Dance had a similar litany of controversial edtech ties. In the end, one needs to wonder whether such loyalties reside more with these edtech groups and ideals than they should. 

Where is objectivity on the costly STAT laptop-per-student and digital curricula program when, according to White’s CV (see link here), the bulk of the interim superintendent’s outside affiliations have been with such edtech proponents?

AFFILIATIONS: Center for Digital Education Advisory Committee; Digital Education Chief Academic Officer Advisory Council; Education Research and Development Advisory Council (ERDI?, which advises companies doing business with BCPS and was related to White’s ethics violations. The interim superintendent has also alarmingly failed to publicly disclose which companies she consulted with on ERDI panels and related.) There’s also her stated affiliation with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

White has additionally served as an advocate for digital curricula and related as a member of the Association of School Curriculum & Development and Maryland Association of School Curriculum and Development. Even more concerning are her advisory roles, as cited in her CV, for outside tech-oriented groups or companies, including the RTM K-12 National Advisory Committee, part of “RTM Business Group, a professional consultancy firm.” 

After an ethics violation finding last year, White said she “made an honest mistake,” and that she was under the impression that she was “‘only to list companies [on disclosure forms] with whom the school system had a contract or a pending contract.’ She has amended her financial disclosure reports to the school system and says she will not accept outside work in the future,” according to a 2018 article in the Sun.

Are any of these outside “affiliations” paid roles? Does White receive any in-kind gifts, meals, items, or covered hotel or travel costs? Do these entities also represent or are sponsored by any BCPS vendors or others doing business with the Board of Education and/or BCPS? And, is White then using her “prestige of office” for private gain, which was cited in her previous ethics violation?

This all raises questions of possible conflicts of interest regarding the continuing high-dollar digital initiative at BCPS. Under good governing standards, the appearance of a conflict of interest should be avoided, see also the district’s Code of Ethics. If one wonders how that might play out, consider BCPS’ Passport/Spanish language program, which White recently defended against any budget cuts by the board, despite high costs (more than $7 million and counting) and troubled results and controversy. White touts an award from Fuel Education on her CV; Yet Fuel Education sells the digital platform, MIL, or Middlebury Interactive Languages. MIL/Middlebury has long been an ERDI client. The company has a $7.5 million contract spending authority with BCPS).

In the end, the previously unreported affiliations with RTM and other positions, and high-dollar contracts like MIL, at the least bear closer scrutiny. Consider RTM’s Blueprint, “the sole property of RTM Business Group, LLC and the authors of the RTM K12 Advisory Board.” Among the blueprint’s priorities: “The Marriage between Academics and Technology: A Blueprint for Creating Powerful Partnerships.”

An opinion column by Joanne C. Simpson, a BCPS stakeholder, former reporter for The Miami Herald, and freelance writer who has followed the costs of this program over the past three years. Her Twitter feed with updates on national news about kids, screens, and schools can be found at: J CavanaughSimpson@JoCavanaughSim1

Updated 2/26, with further updates to come.

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Postscripts: A few notes and resources

  1. According to BCPS’ own Digital Conversion/STAT budget, more than $280 million in “Total Costs” was to be already spent by as early as 2018, and that excluded most of the multi-million dollar digital curricula contracts, as well as part of the second round of $140 million laptop contracts approved last year. See Towson Flyer op-ed with link to the BCPS Digital Conversion/STAT budget. Costs were pulled back temporarily in later STAT budgets when millions for interactive projectors were removed and the rollout of laptops to middle schools was slowed. Yet expenditures have since risen again overall. Laptops assigned per student went to all grades 1st-12th this past fall, with numerous problems cited, including: poor connectivity, inconsistency in software program usage, and hardware woes.)
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  2. Partly in response to this op-ed, Board of Education Vice Chair Julie C. Henn posted this note on her Facebook page: “My [recent] motion to reign in spending for 1:1 devices failed by one vote. The fight to do what’s right for our students and teachers, and to spend wisely, continues.
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    The original motion: “I move to amend the budget request to reflect an expedited transition of Grades K-8 to Chromebooks for the 2019-2020 academic year; to reflect a 5:1 student device ratio for Kindergarten, a 2:1 student to device ratio for grades 1-5, and to retain the current 1:1 student to device ratio for grades 6-8. I further move to end current K-8 device leases effective July 1, 2019.”
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    In Favor (board members): Causey, Henn, Kuehn, Mack, McMillion
    Opposed: Hayden, Jose, Offerman, Pasteur, Rowe, Scott
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    My amended motion to keep the Kindergarten device/student ratio at 5:1 passed unanimously.

  3. In response to Henn’s explanation, school board member Lily Rowe also on Facebook wrote that she supported more phased adjustments to the laptop and digital curricula though did not specify changes: “Moving to end K-8 device leases effective July 2019 would create chaos as we would have no way to implement the current curriculum for grades 3-8. I think we can all agree that if building a plane while flying it was a bad idea then dismantling it in the air is a worse one.” That’s a good point. But unfortunately, edtech proponents counted on such difficulties when they instituted what they called “second order” or irreversible change. See this explanation and linked story. As former superintendent Dance once claimed: “When you do a ‘second order change,’ we can’t go back to business as usual.” That, however, does not take into account humans’ adaptability in the face of crises, especially when children’s education, health, safety, and numerous varied needs are at stake.

The BCPS Budget and The County’s Fiscal Realities

The Baltimore County Board of Education will vote on the BCPS FY2020 Operating Budget on Tuesday, February 19.

The proposed budget is 11% over Maintenance of Effort.  TABCO and other bargaining units have testified for BCPS and the BOE to “go big” and ask for this amount so teachers can receive raises and cost-of-living adjustments, greatly needed support staff can be hired, and the extremely expensive STAT initiative can continue to be funded. Others have asked the BOE to do its due diligence and present a realistic budget outlining its priorities vs. letting the County government decide.

Read this February 14 Baltimore Sun article about the fiscal realities.

Read this November 2018 essay, which explains how we got here.

Read this February 1 BCPS teacher’s Letter to the Editor about the tough choices required.

Protests over Cuts to Teacher Pay Reveal Overpriced Laptop Initiative Fiasco, UPDATED

Image result for photo laptop initiative fiasco

An Open Letter to the Baltimore County Public Schools Board of Education, County Council and Executive Johnny Olszewski:

The vast amount of wasteful spending on the laptop-per-student program known as STAT has created a long-looming fiscal crisis in Baltimore County Public Schools and the county.

A recent 2019-20 budget proposal revision that would slash promised teacher pay increases — sparking protest — is the latest indicator of how dire the situation has become. Teachers are education’s greatest assets and many classroom needs — smaller class sizes, etc — have been sideswiped since this troubled program began with much fanfare in fall 2014.

For the newly elected school board members and county executive, who are increasingly aware of this scenario, here are a few articles pulled together during more than two years of following this issue in Baltimore County, MD. See various in-depth resources, data, citations, and records relevant to this crisis. What’s transpired at BCPS’ still-touted yet mostly failed digital initiative raises red flags for local and national school districts implementing or considering laptop-per-student programs.

The bottom line in Baltimore County:

* BCPS is overpaying for laptops (more than twice the industry and regional average, see link below) — under two contracts with the same HP-reseller, Daly Computers, for nearly $300 million

BCPS also has been overfunding poorly designed software such as iReady and DreamBox — brought to the district under questionable ethical circumstances via the previous and current administration’s ties with controversial edtech broker ERDI. Such software or platform contracts are costing the district and taxpayers additional tens of millions of dollars.

* Laptops assigned one-per-student is considered developmentally inappropriate in younger grades K-2 even in digital education programs across the nation, and in many elementary schools in general. Increased screen time is a concern for children’s brain development (see groundbreaking NIH study and citation below), yet BCPS has ignored emerging science to irresponsibly insist on hours at school and home for children as young as six.

* BCPS’ lack of results, declining test scores, and innumerable problems with wifi connectivity — as well as counterproductive frustration among students being poorly “taught” via software that doesn’t work, and rampant student off-task gaming and internet surfing — reveal this overall program to be a clear fiasco.

Technology is needed in schools, yet BCPS in many cases does not even offer college-and career-ready software tools — in such areas as high school engineering studies. Since the advent of STAT under convicted former superintendent Dallas Dance and interim superintendent Verletta White, BCPS has instead contracted largely with start-up edtech companies making promises they can’t keep, and charging public taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in the meantime. For more info, and in links cited below:
 
More than $60 million in no-bid BCPS contracts linked to controversial private company

http://towsonflyer.com/2017/11/11/60-million-bcps-contracts-linked-controversial-private-clients/

Please direct Interim BCPS Superintendent White to further cut this program in elementary schools: eliminating devices in grades 1 and 2 or possibly moving to a more amenable 3:1 ratio or providing devices on carts to various classrooms during a transition. These options alone would save tens of millions of dollars. Other changes (also pulling unnecessary devices out of kindergarten ‘stations’) and a close fiscal review of tech use and various contracts is needed.

UPDATE: According to BCPS’ own Digital Conversion/STAT budget, more than $270 million was to be already spent by 2019, and that excluded most of the multi-million dollar digital curricula contracts, as well as most of the second round of laptops approved just last year. See 2016 Towson Flyer op-ed with link to the BCPS Digital Conversion/STAT budget. Overall costs were pulled back temporarily when the rollout to middle schools was slowed. Laptops assigned per student went to all grades 1-12 this past fall.)

In the end, an overhaul of the technology program is required — and fresh leadership is needed with a new superintendent who can approach the use of tech in schools with an objective eye to developmental appropriateness and longterm fiscal responsibility. 

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Additional resources, links within, among others:

* BCPS Laptops Cost Twice Industry Standard, report shows

* NIH study indicates lower thinking and language skills, and premature thinning of brain cortex in 9-year-olds exposed to screens:
 

https://www.axios.com/screen-time-nih-study-childhood-development-64779bad-663a-4d8b-94d9-f95dc5959740.html

* Software/platforms such as iReady widely criticized

https://tultican.com/2018/06/27/iready-magnificent-marketing-terrible-teaching/?fbclid=IwAR308H2CFMoAtsc33_lkn7yzzIutP-DICV9GSfy9ajZPny6idPDOo9Oii6Y

* Laptop program brings no results (note this is a $300 million program in laptop costs alone with the second contract round approved, over just the first several years of the ongoing “instructional program.”).

https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/education/k-12/bs-md-co-laptop-schools-achievement-20181127-story.html

* Teachers protest pay cuts and controversy (reported recently by Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Post)