Call for a Special Review Audit: An Open Letter. UPDATED

Dear state and county elected officials, and school board members:

Hope this finds you well. Recent stories regarding suspect contracts and conflicts-of-interest by BCPS leadership—much of which had been brought up previously on this blog and elsewhere—reveals more needs to be done. Now. Please support a Special Review Audit by Maryland’s Office of Legislative Audits (OLA), which would offer school board and county leaders, as well as state elected officials, a much needed thorough and objective look at contracts and spending at BCPS. It’s increasingly evident a special audit is required to foster better decision-making moving forward. Among other pressing issues: upcoming school board votes on the proposed fiscal year 2019 BCPS operating budget, Feb. 6, and subsequent county and state funding.

UPDATE: The Baltimore County Council’s seven members unanimously signed a letter during the evening requesting a legislative review. If this does not move forward with the support of the county executive and the Baltimore County legislative delegation, we have to question: Why?

Resigned Superintendent Dallas Dance has been indicted on four counts of perjury by a grand jury. Interim Superintendent Verletta White has been under review by the ethics panel  for failing to disclose outside income. There are tens of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts shepherded through BCPS by both D. Dance and V. White. What else do our county and state representatives need? At this point, misleading information conveyed in the past would make an external objective review logical and prudent. The one-to-one laptop digital initiative known as STAT, meanwhile, has increasingly drawn nationwide controversy —yet is still set to expand widely. 

This is taxpayer money (nearly $300 million and counting just for STAT’s questionable spending  in the first six years, and $60 million annually plus curricula). This is not the superintendents’ stash of money. Not the county’s purse. And not the school district’s bank account. With all this and more, one can argue that any refusal to seek an independent review is nothing short of ‘dereliction of duty.’

Verletta White appears to be a caring longtime educator, yet recent issues raise too many questions that must be resolved in terms of transparency (what is the resolution/result of the ethics complaint recently filed against Interim Superintendent White?); appearances of conflict-of-interest with various edtech affiliations; grading policy debacle; expanded STAT spending despite questionable claims, ongoing edtech conference travel junkets, not-yet-forthcoming disclosure of ERDI-clients that Ms. White met with as BCPS Chief Academic Officer–-alarmingly a role in which she oversaw and made final recommendations on tens of millions in digital curricula contract selection (for details see Superintendent Rule 6002), as well as numerous other questions and concerns.

In terms of recent remarks by school leadership, BCPS financial disclosure statements and records are indeed clear on reporting any outside income. Mistakes can be made, yet the question posed directly to any employee under Schedule H: “During the reporting period, did you or any member of your immediate family receive any earned income from an entity other than the Board of Education?” Yes. Or No.

The statements, which are several pages long, can be requested from the BCPS Ethics Review Panel. They are public record (see also contact info below). While some of the info refers to employee interactions with those doing biz with BCPS, the most recent of three ethics violation findings against former superintendent Dallas Dance, as long ago as 2016, found he did not disclose outside adjunct income at the University of Richmond– so the issue of ANY outside income needing to be reported on such statements was widely known. This is especially relevant for an educational leader who sets the bar for others.

Other language in the financial statements, meanwhile, covers gifts, which likely included paid meals and hotel rooms at all those conferences. “Schedule D: Gifts: During the reporting period, did you receive any gift(s), directly or indirectly, in excess of a value of $20, or a series of gifts from the same donor with a cumulative value of $100 or more, from a person or entity [that] engaged in an activity that was regulated or controlled by the Board of Education.”

As you are now likely aware, and as detailed in The New York Times, ERDI fostered high-priced personal meetings between district leaders and ERDI client companies, many of them edtech who were and are doing business with BCPS, including DreamBox Learning and iReady, (companies with which Dance met directly via ERDI), according to the Times and Sun. Ms. White, who pressed for several million dollars in expansions of those contract even after Dance left, according to recorded public meetings, has again not publicly disclosed the ERDI-client companies with which she met at luxe ERDI conferences and related.

White also reportedly earned about $12,000 for consultant work with ERDI, $3,000 for each of four years, while also a top BCPS administrator. This raises overall questions as well under Policy 8363: Conflict of Interest: Prohibited Conduct, which states that an employee may not use their “prestige of office or public position for private gain.” (See policy item VI, letter A).

Also in the disclosure statements: “What was the nature of the gift? (Example: book, restaurant meal, theater tickets, etc.)” “Directly or indirectly” would seem to include meals and flights and hotel stays, all expenses that ERDI typically covers.

Lastly, see link below for one of several ERDI conference locations reportedly attended by White and Dance, in 2016 at a spa/resort in Vancouver, Canada.  “Spring 2016 ERDI Conference will now be held at the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe Resort and Spa,” erdi.ca. That resort offered amenities found often at the twice-per year ERDI conferences district leaders attended to “provide feedback” to edtech and related companies: a lap pool, full-service spa, artisanal cocktails, waterfront patio, and LURE Restaurant & Bar, featuring locally-sourced seafood cuisine. Is this in line with what we would expect from leaders of a school district where nearly half of more than 112,000 students live at or below the poverty line?

Has the value of any of these pricey perks been disclosed in particular by Ms. White, or by exec director of Innovative Learning Ryan Imbriale and other admins who traveled often to edtech conferences, such as the ASU-GSV Summit, which the district has confirmed was paid for by the conference/sponsors?

These questions and concerns should not be downplayed nor batted-away with vague, nonspecific responses regarding integrity.” To confirm such integrity, which might indeed be the case, be transparent:

  • Please disclose all companies with which BCPS administrators met as part of outside consulting work with ERDI, or related.
  • Report all in-kind gifts and outside entity paid-for travel, meals, and hotel rooms, as required in the financial disclosure statements.
  • Make public the findings of the recent ethics complaint against Superintendent White, a public official.
  • Provide the raw data for claims of student success, cited via the internal Measures for Academic Progress (MAP) student scores (not objective, as provided by vendor NWEA), and lighthouse/pilot and comparison school standardized scores, etc.
  • And report exactly how much more is being spent on STAT as the laptop-per-student program is now expanding to all high schools across the district. Laptop leases, digital software and license fees will add tens of millions more to the district’s cash-strapped budget, budget records indicate.

Overall, the above letter is simply a current understanding of the facts at hand. An official review and full disclosures are required at this time. Again, this is taxpayer money. These are children’s one shot through this school system under a suspect and fraught experiment.

In the end, the interim superintendent, who has said “there is nothing to hide” and that she welcomes any audit and assistance from the legislature, will fully support an outside legislative audit and further ethics or budget spending reviews—if for no other reason than to clear the air and move forward with the trust and confidence she or another seeks in this important leadership role in Baltimore County Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the nation.

Thank you again for your time. This has certainly taken too much of our time. Please do your jobs. Re-direct and re-evaluate. Anyone would want that from a new county exec, senator, council member, superintendent, or elected school board. Or governor.

 

Additional resources and links: Delve for yourself. Good details. 

 

BCPS Office of Law and ethics panel, to request disclosure forms under the Maryland Public Information Act: Ethics panel — http://www.bcps.org/ethics/requests-to-examine-financial-disclosure-statements.html

 

For other MPIA requests, law office:

http://www.bcps.org/…/Public_Information_Act_Requests.html

 

ERDI conference site:

http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/yyjvo-delta-hotels-victoria-ocean-pointe-resort/

 

Additional information on the ongoing culture of high-cost, taxpayer funded edtech travel at BCPS. See also the many posts and op-eds by other concerned citizens and researchers throughout this blog. Thanks for reading. 🙂

 

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Tech Travel Update: $400,000. Seven offices. A handful of employees. For next year alone.

UPDATED: See postscript regarding possibly problematic BCPS admin financial disclosure statements related to travel and consulting.

Joanne C. Simpson

Looks like Baltimore County Public Schools administrators will be heading to more snazzy hotels in Florida, California, Arizona, and other environs next school year—despite increased concerns over school district spending priorities.

The 2018-19 BCPS proposed budget is out, and answers to school board member questions released yesterday have turned up a few bon mots. Remember those nebulous “other charges” in the current  budget that appeared to be slated for conference dues, mileage, and travel. Well, they were, and still are: To the tune of nearly $400,000 next year for just seven offices, which employ about 16 employees–and not all of those people even travel. 

While school district scandals mushroom with the indictment filed against former superintendent Dallas Dance–and despite increased calls for an independent legislative audit and possible investigator general-BCPS administrators’ controversial spending on travel and conferences is set to go forward unabated.

Taxpayer-funded administrator travel expenses for digital-related departments–with a litany of hopscotch trips nationwide to edtech conferences–outpace those of most other district offices, records show.

Consider: the office of Executive Director of Information Technology, which has more than $88,000 set aside for mileage reimbursement alone, and another $10,000 in conference fees and overnight lodging and meals, totaling nearly $100,000. There are only three employees (FTE) listed in the budget.

Compare that to: the Director of CTE and Fine Arts, which includes some technology education, as well as music, dance, and visual arts, for two staffers: A paltry $550 for overnight travel, and a total of $1,500, including conference registration or mileage. 

Meanwhile, under the Executive Director of Innovative Learning, (with three FTEs, or employee positions) more than $44,000 has been set aside for overnight stays at hotels, with a total including mileage, conference fees and dues of $55,000 for next fiscal year alone. Perhaps other employees benefit from these reimbursements as well.

As previously reported in the Towson Flyer,  Ryan Imbriale, executive director of the Department of Innovative Learning, has pursued numerous out-of-state events: In 2016, “Imbriale attended the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando, along with his wife, director of IT Enterprise Applications Jeanne Imbriale and a phalanx of 10 other BCPS employees related to STAT. Both Imbriales and Information Technology director Lloyd Brown also attended the IMS Global consortium in Denver, Colorado in May, titled “The Future of EdTech Starts Here,” among numerous other jaunts.”

(Ongoing requests to BCPS to disclose employee travel-related spending–and outline actual costs under “other charges”–have gone unanswered despite numerous inquiries since spring of last year and before. The current budget review, however, has shaken a few details loose.)

The office of Blended Learning (also with only 3 positions listed) is budgeted for $81,200 in overnight travel, and another $44,400 for conference registration fees, mileage and professional dues–for a total of $125,600. See answers to board member questions, Appendix. (Also, despite controversy over superintendent travel, $10,000 next year remains slated for the office of the superintendent for overnight lodging and expenses. With mileage reimbursement, “professional dues,” and other taxpayer-funded costs pushing the 2018-19 total past $42,000).

Travel-related “other charges” across the board, for dozens of other BCPS offices and departments, are likely much, much higher, as detailed in the Jan. 23 admin responses, appendix p. 18-42. Pull out your calculators and a fine toothed comb. And extrapolate the costs back three years, under those offices as listed in the budget itself. (A free HP EliteBook Revolve 810 G2 to anyone who finds a grand total for fiscal year 2019, or before. Just kidding on the prize. Hewlett-Packard discontinued the troubled $1,400 laptop/tablet hybrid lauded (promoted) by both BCPS and HP as a centerpiece of the digital initiative known as STAT).

UPDATE: A preliminary review of the fiscal year ’17 and FY18 “other charges” listed in the proposed BCPS budget indicate similar amounts for such travel- and dues-related charges: A possible total of $1.2 million over three years (including FY19)againin just several digital-related departments/offices. (Will update as figures come in). See postscript on disclosure issues.

One tip sent my way, worth a few HP Revolve broken keys, and more: Look also under broader departments, such as Executive Director of Innovative Learning, which oversees Blended Learning, eLearning and the Office of Innovation and Digital Safety (whose amounts are counted in the tally above, at more than $200,000). There’s also a few departments with more employees, such as Library Media Programs and Digital Resources ($33,300 overnight travel, total $60,000), Educational Options ($23,000 overnight, total $46,000), and the Magnet Office. ($8,100 overnight, total $15,900).

Overall, number crunchers out there, please take a closer look at the 2018-19 budget proposed by Interim Superintendent Verletta White, since lots of high costs related to the digital initiative–software license fees, curriculum, instructional materials—show up in all sorts of line items and footnotes. Throughout, millions are siphoned off from here or there to pay for STAT. The administration has said that funding for the experimental laptop-per-student program is coming from “all areas of operation.” For a few examples, just some of the funds to be shifted to Information Technology:

  • A decrease of $236 thousand in supplies and materials, transferred to Executive Director Information Technology for S.T.A.T.
  • An increase of $10.4 million for S.T.A.T.
  • An increase of $461 thousand, redirected from schools and offices for S.T.A.T.”  Source: FY19 budget, p. 128, and p. 204

And while some monies are being pulled from standard textbook coffers, as fewer hardcopy textbooks are used, those funds cannot cover STAT’s rising costs, as BCPS claims. For example, “one-time” (yet yearly charges) for expanding curricula—primarily software, platforms, apps, etc. is currently a $5.2 million paragraph, with such costs tucked into the Chief Academic Officer’s budget, documents show.

A few of the offerings: “One-time instructional materials are required to continue implementation of new curriculum for English language arts ($1,630,000),” which would likely include Curriculum Associates/iReady and “social studies ($2,101,540),” which has been previously tied to Discovery Education’s pricey “techbooks.” 

Please contact any of the powers-to-be and request and support aSpecial Review Audit by the Maryland’s Office of Legislative Audits.

For additional info, see also this FY19 budget work session document. And again, the proposed FY18-19 budget here. What gems might you find? Will update further. Feel free to comment, and share and share widely.

POSTSCRIPT:

And what about disclosure of such travel, affiliations, and possible gifts, directly or indirectly from the conference sponsors (including the ASU-GSV Summit in California, which the administration confirmed was paid for by the conference)? See this:

“Should be known re: Interim Superintendent V. White’s recent remarks (and for other BCPS admins), that financial disclosure statements are indeed clear on reporting any outside income. The question posed directly to the employee under Schedule H: “During the reporting period, did you or any member of your immediate family receive any earned income from an entity other than the Board of Education?”

In addition, regarding “Schedule D: Gifts: During the reporting period, did you receive any gift(s), directly or indirectly, in excess of a value of $20, or a series of gifts from the same donor with a cumulative value of $100 or more, from a person or entity [that] engaged in an activity that was regulated or controlled by the Board of Education.”

(The controversial Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI), was attended by White, as well as former superintendent Dallas Dance who is facing criminal perjury charges related partly to not disclosing income from ERDI, at least $3,000 per year over several years. White also did not disclose similar payments on statements, which she said was an oversight. She was not named in the indictment.

ERDI-fostered high-priced personal meetings with client companies, many of the edtech, who were and are doing business with BCPS, including DreamBox Learning and iReady, with which Dance met via ERDI. Ms. White has apparently refused to name ERDI-client companies with which she met at luxe ERDI conferences and related.

Also in the forms: “What was the nature of the gift? (Example: book, restaurant meal, theater tickets, etc.)” “Directly or indirectly” would seem to include meals and flights and hotel stays, all expenses that ERDI usually covers. Here’s one of several locations of ERDI conferences reportedly attended by V. White and Dallas Dance in Vancouver, Canada. Has the value(s) of any of these pricey perks been disclosed in particular by V. White, as well as Exec director of Innovative Learning Ryan Imbriale, or other admins who traveled often as well? “Spring 2016 ERDI Conference will now be held at the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe Resort and Spa,” erdi.ca

Former Superintendent Dallas Dance INDICTED: A Litany of Lies?

Former Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Shaun Dallas Dance was indicted today on four counts of perjury for failing to disclose nearly $147,000 in payments on financial disclosure forms for outside consulting—which Dance had pledged not to pursue after ethics violations during his five-year tenure.

Following a 2014 ethics finding–which involved a company, SUPES Academy, now named in the indictment–the Baltimore County school board and Dance agreed that he would “not take any other consulting jobs as long as he works for the school system. Dance also said in a statement that he would be more careful to avoid conflicts,” the Sun reported in 2014.

“Dr. Dance proposed a cure to the violation, and that cure was that he would not hereinafter do any paid consulting,” noted then-school board president Lawrence Schmidt.

Yet Dance did take numerous private consulting jobs, and as superintendent did not disclose related income on financial disclosure forms filed with the school district, the indictment reveals. The disclosure requirement is separate from the ethics “cure,” and, as cited in the indictment, would be “in violation of §9-101 of the Criminal Law Article, Annotated Code of Maryland, and against the peace, government and dignity of the State. CR 9-101, Perjury (CJIS Code 1-0307).”

A possible perjury link was previously reported by this blog on October 26:

“According to amended financial disclosure forms filed “under penalty of perjury” after an ethics finding, Dance reported no personal income from his LLC, Deliberate Excellence, which according to charter records was formed ‘to consult and partner with school systems, businesses and organizations around best practices to obtain maximum organizational outcomes.'”

Dance repeatedly said publicly he was not consulting, and after a second ethics violation told the Baltimore Sun the “LLC was not doing any business and had no income.” This blog also reported that the LLC has been listed as “Not In Good Standing” for the last several months, perhaps linked to the state prosecutor investigation. Each count of the indictment carries a possible 10-year prison term. An arraignment is set for early February.

For a copy of the grand jury indictment and responses, see also the Baltimore Sun and Towson Flyer stories. For additional details on the scandal, see The New York Times and Baltimore Post.

In the end, what does this mean for the county’s cash-strapped school system, and the more than $60 million in no-bid curricula contracts brought in under Dance, as well as his still-ongoing nearly $300 million digital initiative known as STAT? As the indictment notes: the financial disclosure statements made “under oath or affirmation,” were to disclose and document the superintendent’s “business-related transactions during the preceding calendar year  . . .  to assure the public and the Board of Education that his impartiality and independent judgment was not impaired by conflicts of interest and to guard against improper influence and the appearance of improper influence.

The more than $60 million in no-bid BCPS contract spending authorities are held by clients (newly named “professional colleagues”) of the Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI), which was listed in the indictment. Dance was a long-time ERDI consultant—a role undisclosed throughout his tenure. Interim Superintendent Verletta White was also an ERDI consultant and did not report those consulting fees on her BCPS financial disclosure forms, which she termed an oversight. White was not named in the indictment. Despite controversy, White pressed for the expansion of two high-dollar contracts with ERDI-clients which Dance had recently advised, DreamBox Learning and Curriculum Associates/iReady–for an additional several million dollars after Dance resigned in June.

White also has long-term affiliations with the edtech industry via conference panel appearances and as an academic officer at the edtech-promotional Center for Digital Education. Questions regarding independent and unbiased leadership remain regarding the future of academic program decisions, as well as any objective analysis of actual student outcomes under the laptop-per-student full-court press at BCPS. Despite numerous nationwide exposés, the district and majority of the school board plan to expand STAT to all county high schools 9-12th next school year.

Further investigation and an independent, state legislative legislative audit is required to follow the money still flying around the county’s public school district. — JCS

For additional info that broke today:

“A Baltimore County grand jury alleges that Dance, once seen as a rising star in the education policy world, failed to disclose the pay from his private consulting company, Deliberate Excellence, beginning in 2012, The Baltimore Sun reports. Each count of perjury carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in jail.
The charges also allege that in 2012, Dance negotiated a no-bid contract with the Chicago-based company SUPES Academy to train Baltimore principals while he was earning approximately $90,000 from the company. Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a co-owner of SUPES, was indicted on corruption charges in 2015 for steering millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to SUPES. “
— Caitlin Emma, PoliticoPro

Calls for Special Audit Review of BCPS & Gov. Hogan Calls for School Investigator

Many feel that the planned audit of tech-related BCPS contracts by an accounting firm hired by the school system doesn’t go far enough.  Read about a proposed special review audit and accompanying petition, and about Gov. Hogan’s call to create a new State Education Department Investigator General. The IG would be charged with “investigating complaints of unethical, unprofessional, or illegal conduct relating to procurement, education assets, graduation requirements, grading, education facilities, and school budgets.”

Baltimore Post, January 6: Demand Intensifies for Legislative Audit of Baltimore County Schools

Petition: Support a Special Audit Review of Baltimore County Public Schools

Press Release, January 8: Governor Larry Hogan Announces Accountability in Education Initiatives (including establishing an Education Investigator General)

Washington Post, January 8: Gov. Larry Hogan proposes ‘investigator general’ to probe problems in Md. schools

Towson Flyer, January 12: Brochin, Lafferty, Kamenetz weigh in on Hogan’s call for school investigator

Baltimore Post, January 14: Education Policymaker Discusses Need for Investigator General at Maryland State Dept. of Education