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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