September 3, 2019 Wall Street Journal:
Baltimore County Public Schools’ S.T.A.T. one-to-one device initiative is featured.
September 3, 2019 Wall Street Journal:
Baltimore County Public Schools’ S.T.A.T. one-to-one device initiative is featured.
Last month, the Baltimore Sun published an editorial, “Five things Baltimore County should know about new Superintendent Darryl Williams. #4 on the list was his position on devices in BCPS schools:
4. Laptops for every student? Maybe, maybe not. This might have been the biggest surprise of the conversation. Providing personal computers to every student in the system (a controversial policy already abandoned in the early grade school years) has been one of the most heated recent debates in the county schools. Many parents, and certain school board members, are quite antagonistic toward the practice, but if anyone thought the board was hiring an anti-laptop superintendent, think again. Chalk him up as undecided. Mr. Williams says he sees the value in providing laptops to students who don’t otherwise have access to one. But in the end, it’s just a tool. Is it better to spend money on such devices or on teacher training and support? That’s a question he says he’ll be pondering.
Read the entire editorial here.
Due in part to budgetary constraints, to a new County Executive with a differing view of the program, and to lack of proof of its efficacy, BCPS will change the student-to-device ratio from 1:1 in Grades 1 and 2 to 5:1. Another big change will be the switch to much less expensive Chromebooks. Read more about it here.
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.
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, DC — triple 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).
Thomas J. Barnickel III, CPA, Legislative Auditor: p. 33-35
**Procurement Reform letter and report.
See addendum, p. 33-35:
“BCPS had not established a comprehensive procurement policy that requires competitive procurement of certain services or documentation of justifications for not using competitive procurements.”
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).
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.”
CETL Team six fills the elevator
“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.”
Here is how CoSN also advertises access to school leaders for companies who hope to market edtech wares:
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?
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?
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
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.