Observations of the Baltimore County Council Meeting, May 18, 2016

I have repeatedly heard our superintendent state, “How we tell our story matters”.  From this I can conclude that he means that my story matters, too, and that the perspective from which a story is told can change how one thinks about that narrative.  This is my story of attending the Baltimore County Council Budget meeting on May 18, 2016. 

I had seen the auditor’s report the night before and was excited to read the questions the auditor thought needed to be answered.  I carved time out of my day to attend the meeting, scheduled at 3pm, because I wanted to hear the BCPS administration answer these questions.  What I saw instead was disappointing.  The meeting started an hour and fifteen minutes late, so I was able to watch the County Council members adeptly praise and raise concerns in regards to all manner of waste pick up, recycling, snow removal, and pot hole repairs, even to the suggestion of leaving beer as a tip for your trash removers.  So, after the long awaited BCPS representatives’ appearance, I thought we would hear the same level of analysis of the crucial concerns about the budget of Baltimore County Public Schools, which was appropriately identified as the largest chunk of the budget that the Baltimore County Council will be discussing.

There was much discussion about capital budget, new elementary schools, fixing schools, and air conditioning.  However, the budget as it pertains to the STAT initiative was glossed over.  The county auditor appropriately identified many areas of concern regarding STAT; see page 16 of the auditor’s report:

  • Why its budget document does not align to its actual spending patterns in recent years for key instructional costs such as salaries and instructional supplies;
  • The opportunity costs of funding the digital conversion/S.T.A.T. initiative and why BCPS has chosen to prioritize this initiative over other competing funding needs;

Research repeatedly shows that small class sizes are better than computer programs, such as those employed under STAT, but that lost opportunity cost was not identified.  (Read more here,  here, here and here ) Dr. Dance again stated that STAT allows for “student choice,” including where a child sits, and for personalized learning.  He reported that MAP testing scores will be released which show that STAT is improving academic achievement in our schools.  We will look forward to seeing that data released.  Or will it only be released to the County Council?  Since this meeting was not recorded and what they send to the council will likely be a private exchange, where is the transparency in these issues of great concern for students and parents in BCPS?

Dr. Dance went on to say that BCPS has “never overspent” and class sizes “have not increased” during his tenure as superintendent.  That being said, he leaves out that when he began his tenure as superintendent, BCPS was at austerity measures for class sizes- they had been increased because of the economic downturn in 07/08 and have never been returned to what they were previously.

Councilman Kach did raise an interesting question about class sizes and asked if there is a universal way to discuss class size. Dance answered no, and claimed that <2% of classrooms exceed classroom size limits. Is that on average (with small classes such as special education skewing the larger numbers down) or is it an actual?

Councilman Marks appropriately asked about how the budgets of other counties are kept so much smaller with their digital learning environments.  Dr. Dance said he could not speak to those other counties. No one asked about the increasing administrative costs. And no one asked about where the money is coming from for the cost of Dr. Dance and his administration to travel the world discussing the perceived successes of STAT. Who is paying for that? 

Councilman Kach did request that Dr. Dance provide his office with a “fact sheet” which will address health and screen time concerns.  Dr. Dance said he will get that to Mr. Kach by Friday.  We will look forward to seeing that as well.  What Dr. Dance did say was that the American Academy of Pediatrics states that if the screen media is not “entertainment media,” there are no limits to how much time children should spend on computers; he added that our kids are not on the computers “all day every day,” anyway.  Dance described his recent visit to a school in which he was in eight classrooms for ten to twelve minutes each, and in only four of those classrooms were the children using the computers.  I am guessing this was meant to be a description of overall use; however, it just showed how little is actually known about how much time kids are spending on the devices if this is his only concrete example.

This bind is quite confusing to me as a county taxpayer and parent of a young child in BCPS.  By Dr. Dance’s assessment, our kids are not using the computers much at all (although they could, because as he states the AAP says that would be okay if it is educational).  Why then is there the great expense of STAT, which is stripping the county of resources which could be otherwise used to improve the lives of young people in the school system?

The auditor raised this issue on page 23, but it was not addressed by the Council:

  • Results of independent (non-tech industry) studies regarding the benefits and drawbacks of classroom technology that BCPS has consulted during the implementation of the digital conversion/S.T.A.T. initiative;

We did find out from another question on the same page of the auditor’s report that most computers previously used in schools were ten to thirteen years old, and that those computers will be removed and disposed of.  The more recently purchased desktop computers are being recycled to the middle and high schools that do not have the STAT initiative.  This makes me wonder if one of these tablets would last ten to thirteen years and not be obsolete beforehand.  Why are we going from a technology that lasts that long to one in which we will be signing four year leases, presumably because there will be upgrades every four years which we will be paying tremendous amounts of money for annually.

I also did not hear this addressed (page 23):

  • Any impacts associated with redirecting school-based funds on the day-to-day operations of schools and activities (e.g., field trips, assemblies).

The auditor did not include things such as the reduction of money for paper, books, and copiers, but these are day-to-day operations that went completely unaddressed.

This point was also not discussed (page 27):

  • How BCPS responds to parent concerns regarding screen time and radiofrequency exposure and if consideration is being given to an “opt-out” alternative to digital learning environments; 

We wonder if the auditor’s question about the Risk Management position being vacant (Dr. Dance answered that this position has been vacant for 3 months) has to do with them leaving because of the concerns over a program with so little consideration of children’s safety in terms of data privacy, ergonomics, and impact of screen time on developing bodies and brains.  The auditor cited this recent article in the Baltimore Sun. And herehere, here, here and here are more about risks and benefits of computers used in classrooms.

Dr. Dance did mention that one concerned parent would be getting a tour of the STAT program from his staff.  This made me wonder who that person is and why they are getting a tour that is not offered to others.  Why don’t they hold an open forum for concerned parents to have our questions answered—many go unanswered, just like the auditor’s questions.  We wonder if maybe Dance had the tour confused with the “STAT stakeholders” that he and the Baltimore County Education Foundation were tweeting about hosting on the same day as the County Council meeting.  These stakeholders, however, are only the companies that BCPS does business with for STAT. Here is one example, but there are many on Twitter: https://twitter.com/foundationbcps/status/733120972249792512  Where are the parents, students, and genuine stakeholders? You can read more here.

When the topic of computer-based curriculum was addressed, Dr. Dance reflected on the computers being able to “meet and even accelerate”  kids’ learning needs. What  exactly does this mean?  And is this something that only a computer can do?  Small class sizes and talented teachers can do this too, with far more warmth and reliability than machines. Dance specifically stated that it would be “unfair” for a teacher to have a classroom of 25 children without the use of technology to help this teacher address all of the children’s needs at the same time.  It made me wonder, if that is the case, what age group are we talking about?  Can kids not read independently in the grade he is talking about?  Are there enough teacher aides in the class he is describing?  What would happen if the kids had more human help in the classrooms?

Dance mentioned that BCPSOne is what protects children’s data, but he leaves out the corporations included on BCPSOne, and where the data is going, not to mention the issue of kids who can bypass the firewalls of BCPSOne to roam the Internet during class time.

Dr. Dance did answer the question about “opt out” of digital learning environments, and he deferred to the Maryland State Department of Education, stating that a curriculum used by a public school is not one that can be “opted out” of by parents in that system.  We would love more information about this from the state and will follow up on this important concept for all different kinds of reasons, from the philosophical “I don’t want my kid being taught by computers” to the real physical concerns of  “My child has visual problems that the ophthalmologist recommends he not be on computers for more than 30 minutes per day.”

There were other questions answered, such as bus drivers’ and substitute teachers’ pay, which are very important in the functioning of BCPS.  I do not want to diminish the importance of topics I have left out of this description of the meeting. The big announcement of central AC for all schools supposedly being funded by July 1, 2016 removes the focus on the timeline of when that central AC will be actually be bid for and installed, and also distracts from the issue of why the county continues to fund the expensive and unproven STAT computer initiative. 

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5 thoughts on “Observations of the Baltimore County Council Meeting, May 18, 2016

  1. “We did find out from another question on the same page of the auditor’s report that most computers previously used in schools were ten to thirteen years old, and that those computers will be removed and disposed of. The more recently purchased desktop computers are being recycled to the middle and high schools that do not have the STAT initiative. This makes me wonder if one of these tablets would last ten to thirteen years and not be obsolete beforehand. Why are we going from a technology that lasts that long to one in which we will be signing four year leases, presumably because there will be upgrades every four years which we will be paying tremendous amounts of money for annually.”

    I will say as an IT professional, it is staggering to me that “most computers previously used in schools were ten to thirteen years old.” Typical refresh of computer hardware is roughly every 4-5 years as a (rough) standard. Hardware gets old and starts failing (bad hard drives, power supplies, video cards, etc). And at some point you simply can’t find replacement parts because the technology is obsolete. In ten to thirteen years, we’ve gone from PS2 peripherals (mice/keyboards) to USB, video card connections have changed from VGA to DVI. I have a user at work that is on an old style keyboard/video/mouse switch (to connect multiple computers using only one set of keyboard/monitor/mouse). And by old style I mean PS2 peripherals and VGA monitor. Her mouse was acting up last week, and I had a heckuva time finding her a replacement PS2 mouse. (Her workstations can’t be updated at this point in time for various reasons.)

    I would also be curious as to what operating system those ten to thirteen year old BCPS computers were running. Windows XP is no longer supported, or patched. Workstations running that OS (or older) are rife with hackable vulnerabilities since they are no longer supported or patched.

    While I agree in theory with technology refresh every 5ish years, I don’t know if I agree with the leasing aspect BCPS favors. I’d be interested to know the lease cost per device annually and if that includes a support contract from the supplier.

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  2. Last year’s audit report reported that class sizes have increased that all schools went to the Tier 1 levels of class sizes. This may have been due to STAT teachers no longer teaching students. I wish the county council would listen to its own auditors! The auditors did an outstanding job.

    There are also online programs students are told to participate in that are outside BCPS one. How about privacy for those?

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  3. The laptops are costing the schools about$1400 each over the four-year leases, but are nowhere near the quality of something like a MacBook Pro for the same amount to purchase, which also would likely last longer usage-wise than four years.

    The BCPS contract with Daly includes support, as well as a couple hundred dollars for what some people call “bumper-to-bumper” coverage. However it seems that a lot of principals, teachers and parents are urged NOT to request new devices even when the ones they have are lemons, or there are damages that are supposedly covered.

    More schools need to know what is in the contract so that they can get the actual support they need for these devices. That might be another area for the auditors to look at. Many of these devices in elementary school are being dropped and sent to whatever tech person is handling it, ending up being held together by multiple colors of duct tape.

    This is one of the problems that have led to the end of such in-school laptop programs elsewhere.

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  4. If Baltimore County does not remove Dance and undo this program, you will see county parents trying to get their kids into Baltimore City Schools. The Baltimore City School System has been on the upswing, and has many schools with good academic programs.

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