And the beat goes on . . . $140 million more for laptops at BCPS? UPDATED

Free stock photo of hands, money, cash, dollars
An op-ed by Joanne C. Simpson
Baltimore County Public Schools is considering spending another $140 million on leases for laptops, whose hard drives will be wiped just four years down the road. Another round of leases would take over. Then again. And this on top of recently disclosed $150 million or more the district says it has spent in fewer than four years since the launch of the still-unproven laptop-per-student digital initiative.

And the winning bidder is . . .  Daly Computers, Inc., the same company that provided the current controversial Hewlett-Packard devices at BCPS. The HP Revolve laptop/tablet hybrid has been criticized for numerous glitches, hardware problems, and questions over quality, cost, and overall edtech ties. Daly tech support has been widely panned, with parents reporting some student laptops needing repair and not returned for weeks. 

Also, this experimental tech initiative is now more than $300 million and counting. . . . and that doesn’t include tens of millions in ongoing digital curricula contracts and other related expenditures tucked elsewhere in the annual school district budget.

The Board of Education is set to vote on the $140 million contract on Tuesday, just two days before former superintendent Dallas Dance is scheduled to go to trial on four counts of perjury, related partly to paid consulting with an edtech-oriented company. The upcoming vote on the large contract, with little documentation provided prior to board meeting, comes amidst widespread calls for external legislative or other audits of the school system’s procurement, contract, and spending related to technology contracts.

UPDATES: After this post, as well as subsequent articles in the Towson Flyer, Baltimore Sun, The Baltimore Post, and letters from board members, a county councilman, and other outreach, the school board vote on the contract has at least been delayed for two weeks until the next school board meeting. Hopefully, that will allow time for board members, the public, elected officials, and other stakeholders to  have time to review the facts and figures.  

For example, it seems such tech costs might be even higher, and a possible “bailout” in the works related to the original laptop contract—with payments going out much faster than contracted, according to a board member’s review of documents. See details in Postscript 2, below.  Board member Ann Miller noted higher Daly lease expenditures of  overspend of tens and millions in leasing costs.

Consider questions of transparency and truth: How can the running tally on STAT since 2014–including infrastructure, some professional development, and other costs—be $147.7 million, as cited by the district, yet the laptop expenditures alone $162.9 million? The original 7-year contract spending authority was for $205 million, which would also be spent out prior to contract end.

Board member Kathleen Causey urged a delay on the vote until after a proposed external audit of school expenditures is accomplished. In a widely disseminated email, Causey wrote that a few days was not enough time to request documents and evaluate the contract and services: “It is not remotely sufficient to make a decision of this magnitude, much less under current circumstances.”

On Sunday night, after the proposed contract was officially put on the meeting agenda, Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach sent an email to school board chair Edward Gilliss and BOE members to reject the bid and slow the wider laptop rollout, pending an outside state-level audit: “In the strongest terms possible, I urge you to vote against this contract and delay any additional purchase of these devices for at least a year.”

BCPS staff, in the contract document, described the proposed $140-million Daly deal thus: “This is a new competitively bid contract to lease and refresh a functionally complete and cost-effective one-to-one student, teacher, and staff mobile device as well as desktops for some school and central office staff.” Most central office computers are Apple.

The newly bid laptop contract JMI-604-18 comes on the heels of widespread controversy over Silicon Valley’s influence at this “model digital district;” criticism over program costs; BCPS leaders’ ethics violations related partly to edtech companies; and pricey administrator travel (see also here , herehere, and now here)—as well as the propriety of the previous bidding process for the devices, which seemed to offer an unfair advantage to HP,  and certain “display/Screen/Camera specifications” and “capacitive touch screen.” The HP EliteBook Revolve 810 G2 used at BCPS, touted so highly (and in HP company promos here), had ranked third out of four devices tested prior to the deal with the school district, according to records. Daly is an authorized reseller to Hewlett-Packard (HP).

Definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

In an eloquent op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, longtime educator and blogger Anne Groth decried the logic and educational values of the district under a technology initiative gone awry.  At a recent school board meeting, before a vote was taken on the 2018-19 $1.6 billion BCPS budget, several board members “made motions to redirect funds. Attempts were made to take funds from line items, such as travel and conferences that benefit central office staff, and divert them toward hiring essential schoolhouse personnel; social workers, bus monitors and residency officers,” Groth wrote. “Another motion was made to move laptops currently assigned to students in grades one and two to high school students in lieu of purchasing more laptops. In addition to attempts to slow spending, this motion also addressed parent concerns about young children and screen time.”

“Sadly, none of the motions passed. By the end of the meeting it seemed like business as usual with continued lavish spending — similar to the previous five years under former superintendent Dallas Dance’s leadership.

An ongoing conflict-of interest issue, meanwhile, remains crossover advertising between BCPS and vendors, including Daly. Check out Montgomery-county based Daly Computer’s promotional shout out to Team BCPS, posted on its website January 11, while the contract was under consideration:

DALY is a proud supporter of @TEAMBCPS

See also this video of Daly employees holding up TEAMBCPS signs in front of their state-of-the-art building in advance of another $140 million. Who made those official signs? (Daly, btw, also has a separate printing services contract with BCPS for $25 million more, a five-year contract up for renewal later this year. And Daly is listed among vendors for $50 million in piggyback/cooperative contracts).**

If the new laptop contract, also termed “a lease refresh” and recommended by Interim Superintendent Verletta White, moves forward, a school board vote would follow the same tech trajectory set by former Superintendent Dance, now set to go to trial on four counts of perjury related to his tenure at the helm of the public school district, which he promised to lead into the 21st century via “24/7 online learning.”

The laptop-per-student program, in which 70 percent of curricula* is apparently “digital,” is now slated to go districtwide (Grade 1 up) next school year, despite implementation problems and flagging results. Under high school rollout plans, expanded software-based curricula, e-learning classes by start-up companies, and 1:1 devices will be implemented in grades 9-12 all at once, a massive change at a time when students are preparing for colleges or careers. Among other questionable results, standardized PARCC scores at three BCPS pilot or “lighthouse” schools, which have had the laptops/STAT for nearly two years, have remained mostly flat, as reported on the Maryland State Department of Education site.

Under a “General Contract Recommendation Form,” a 2-pager released just today, the 7-year contract would apparently include 133,000 student/teacher laptops—though the actual model, insurance costs, technical support services, and other related expenditures or details have not been disclosed. This money would come from the school district’s operating budget. The laptops under these apparent numbers would still exceed $1,000–even though HP alone offers numerous devices, some meant for financially aware school districts, in the $200 to $400 range.

Other districts known for digital options, such as the nationally regarded Mooreseville Graded School District do not assign devices one-per-child through 3rd grade or in elementary schools, and instead have laptops available on carts at a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio for early grades, which they consider more fiscally sound and developmentally appropriate. 

Other undisclosed STAT expenditures recently came to light after board members pressed for answers on the $1.6 billion fiscal year 2019 BCPS budget. (UPDATE: Yet now even these BCPS-quoted numbers are questionable, and appear to be much higher. (See Postscript 2)). “The S.T.A.T. implementation has cost approximately $147.7 million through FY2018,” BCPS administrators responded in a January memo to the board. “The $147.7 million includes network infrastructure, some early classroom A/V support, library technology support, BCPS One and client software support, and device leases for students and staff.”

See number 4

One board member pressed, several times, to find out how much is being spent on software license fees and related—-among numerous expenditures (including tens of millions digital curricula) only minimally included in the “6 Year Instructional Digital Conversion Plan” a.k.a. STAT budget, which also suggests about $52 million would go out every year for laptop leases.  See budget, p. 14. All of these BCPS-cited numbers have yet to be confirmed by auditors, county, state, or others.

Since the digital initiative was launched in 2014-15, at least $17.5 million has gone out the door on license fees and related (see link below), for digital curricula, BCPS One, and Microsoft license fees. Software license fees and cloud-based subscriptions have created ongoing financial burdens at other school districts.

See number 17,

In another new disclosure, investigative journalist Ann Costantino reports today that Dance was reimbursed by the public school district for travel expenditures related to private consulting with the controversial Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI), see corporate partners recently renamed “professional colleagues,” many of whom are doing business with BCPS. Dance closed out his Deliberate Excellence LLC, cited in the criminal case to be heard next week, which had revealed nearly $147,000 in paid consulting, including from ERDI.

White, who also consulted for ERDI (see ethics finding link below), has apparently been a believer and supporter of the HP device since the initial $205 million laptop contract was approved, when she was BCPS Chief Academic Officer. The ‘advertorial’ from the Education Foundation of Baltimore County Schools website: “While we as adults may see using an EliteBook© in the classroom as foreign, our students are 21st century learners,” she said. “For them, using digital technology to learn in school is second-nature, which can be compared to how their parents and grandparents used paper, pencils, and textbooks.”

With everything going on at BCPS—including a recent ethics violation finding against Interim Superintendent White similar to a previous ethics panel finding against former superintendent Dance—there indeed seems no better time than now for a legislative Special Review Audit or other objective, outside investigation of the use, or misuse, of state funds—and state and county taxpayer dollars—at Baltimore County Public Schools, one of the nation’s largest districts.

As Causey noted of the impending $140 million laptop contract to Daly and related: “Again, I think this is rushing a major fiscal decision with no opportunity for all Board members to evaluate the many parameters of a complicated procurement that impacts the entire system.  While I agree that developmentally appropriate, equitable, financially-sustainable and effective implementation of technology is beneficial for teaching and learning, I am not convinced that hurtling rapidly down a path set by the former resigned Superintendent is in the best interest of our students, teachers, staff and communities.

This post will be updated. — Joanne C. Simpson, is a freelance journalist, a former reporter for The Miami Herald, and a BCPS stakeholder.

Note: A summary from the March 5 Towson Flyer story on pending vote and controversies, excerpt below.*

According to a contract schedule, “BCPS should have spent $113 million through this school year. But according to the new contract proposal, it’s already spent $163 million ($50 million more than expected) and will spend $16 million more in the final months of this fiscal year, bringing the overage to $66 million.”

“BCPS board member Julie Henn, who is running for re-election this fall to represent the district that includes Towson, said she is concerned about the excess $66 million, and about “BCPS’ interactions and relationships with ed tech vendors and potential undue influence over purchasing.”

“It is the Board’s responsibility to ensure that we are spending wisely — in the best interest of our students — not for the personal gain of those entrusted to lead our school system,” Henn said in an email.”

Postscript 1: Daly Computers, Inc., while registered in Maryland [Department ID Number D02437658] and in good standing, has also registered to do business in other states, such as Virginia, including in Richmond, where Dance now lives, and Florida. The company’s registration in Florida has not been closed out, apparently, and is listed as “revoked for annual report.

Postscript 2: See this post by Board of Education Member Ann Miller’s public Facebook page, regarding the pending contract. Miller wrote that the overspend on device contract is almost the cost of three new high schools. “With the new contract for devices, we are being asked by BCPS for a bailout,” she wrote.

“BCPS used almost six years of their spending authority in four years on the original device contract. We questioned every year why that particular device was selected when it was so expensive. We found out later it failed drop tests and it was the third choice out of four devices evaluated by the device evaluation team. I repeatedly asked the key decision-makers (Dr. Dance, Ms. White, Mr. Sarris, Mr. Smith – all on record) if the STAT program was fiscally sustainable, and we were assured by all that it is. Now that the money is running out, suddenly we need a new contract and we need it now. So we are ending a seven year contract after four years when we spent almost six years of the spending authority.

We are being asked for a bailout.”


Other resources:

*Note: How digitized are classrooms in Baltimore County Public Schools? Here is a citation and link to STAT plans and apparent “Curricula Conversion” already in place, from a 2017 report. “The digital development of 309 curricula comprising approximately 70% of the district’s curriculum has occurred in the last 48 months.
Figure 1.1 Curriculum development process: BCPS has partnered with NBC Learn, Discovery Education, and Knovation to align digital content to curriculum and content standards.” See p. 8…/stat/Spring2017-BiannualUpdate.pdf

** Lastly, current Daly Computers, Inc. contracts with BCPS, source district records:

See contract info, as well as cooperative/piggyback contracts PCR-280-13 and JMI-631-17, among others. Also, MWE-807-14 is the original $205 million contract spending authority with Daly for the current laptops in use. It remains unclear exactly how much has been spent, though a few more years would remain under that original contract, a scenario some say could happen on this next round as well. As posed: How can we trust the financial proposal when it seems [Daly] burned through 6 years of BCPS budget monies, under the previous contract—and in just 4 years . . . ?

Hardware, Software, and Services to Provide a 1:1 Student Device Program 06/30/2021 Services/Supplies Daly Computers, Inc.
RGA-105-14 Printing Devices and Managed Print Services 09/30/2018 Services/Supplies Daly Computers, Inc.

Moral Compass or Court Prep? Updated.

Photos of children from Baltimore County Public Schools were removed yesterday from the consulting website of former superintendent Dallas Dance, about one week before his case on perjury charges is set to go to trial.

After recent revelations in this blog, and other outreach, the photos of children in BCPS hallways and classrooms—some featuring Dance interacting with students wearing name tags—have been removed from the private, for-profit The DDance Group website. Dance set up the consulting site two months after resigning from BCPS on June 30. One of the photos also prominently featured the HP Revolve laptops, and student lanyard IDs–both controversial programs brought to the schools by Dance, with contracts totaling more than $215 million combined. While superintendent, a taxpayer-funded job which paid more than $250,000 a year, Dance did promotional videos and related for both companies, Hewlett Packard (HP) and ScholarChip Card, LLC.

Yet the apparently misleading and questionable edtech advertising goes on unabated. [UPDATE: See also another $140 million contract being considered this upcoming week for a new round of one-to-one laptops in the district. And commercial tie-ins with the vendor, Daly Computers, Inc., a re-seller of Hewlett-Packard devices.]

A slew of ScholarChip videos articles partly promoting the company’s relationship with BCPS have also appeared after the ID program was mostly defunct. See images of similar cards here; the program and Dance here (and when it first launched here); as well as references to the district and its One Card in news articles here on the company’s site. ScholarChip has also been listed as a Pearson Independent Software Vendor.

The company, a finalist for the “Emerging Technology Solution” award from EdTech Digest in 2012, was hired by BCPS in 2014 under a $10 million taxpayer-funded contract. ScholarChip has been paid more than $4 million by BCPS, administrators have acknowledged, with over $200,000 still going out annually—even though the unwieldy student IDs are no longer used, and the attendance kiosks sat idle and were sent back.

Is such false advertising in the best interest of Baltimore County Public Schools? Seems a Cease and Desist order is needed. Yet again. As well as further investigation into the former superintendent’s affiliations with the company, especially considering taxpayer dollars are still going into ScholarChip coffers and shoring up company promotion.

Student IDs and door entrance cards are not a bad idea, especially in high schools, but is this company’s product actually being used here at BCPS to “get police and fire departments on board. Here’s a video on how BCPS did it?” Possible misleading advertising using our district might impede the adoption of other proven safety measures to protect schools and students here and elsewhere.

Dance, under indictment on four charges of perjury, allegedly failed to disclose paid outside consulting he did mostly with school systems regarding leadership training, which is also prominently featured on his website. The DDance Group’s “Pillars of Focus” are “Leadership Development, School Improvement/District Improvement, Leadership Support and Strategic Advising.” One of the districts listed in the indictment (though not under investigation), Pasadena Unified School District, still features a testimonial on Dance’s site: “In all interactions, Dr. Dance has been a motivating presence in support of schools and students.”

Despite the fact that Dance widely touted education technology while at BCPS as “21st Century Learning,” his consulting group barely mentions tech in schools. So, one-laptop-per-student and software-delivery of lessons are not The Way? Such digital learning was touted, and vociferously so (“Just Ask, Siri”), by the former superintendent in panels and edtech events nationwide during his tenure.

Will the cash-strapped public school district continue to be used to promote private edtech industry interests?* Dance’s “Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT)” program is still expanding next year to all 112,000 students in Baltimore County, despite ongoing ethics issuesexorbitant costs near $300 million, and no independent proof of positive outcomes overall.  

Guest opinion post by Joanne C. Simpson, freelance journalist and BCPS stakeholder.

In related news, Dance is set to go before a Baltimore County jury on March 8, in Baltimore County Circuit Court in downtown Towson. For the latest news on the superintendent’s barred consulting gigs while at the helm of the public school system, see this story and upcoming articles by investigative reporter Ann Costantino.

*See this Global Silicon Valley symposium video, also featuring Interim Superintendent Verletta White (then Chief Academic Officer). And continued Digital Promise promotion here. And V. White’s role at the Center for Digital Education here. And, just several months ago, start-ups awarded contracts at BCPS, including Workbench “online learning hub” and CourseArc, an “e-learning content creation platform.” Promotional tweet here. (Orwell, from his Politics and the English Language viewpoint, would be appalled.) Also, vendor HP promos and controversies, as well as Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL), another mega-contract at $7.5 million and a very aggressive advertising campaign featuring BCPS.

See also, this post regarding ScholarChip by education blogger Anne Groth.


And this second D. Dance video, posted after the ScholarChip ID pilot program failed:

ScholarChip added 1 video / BCPS / 2016


BCPS / ScholarChip

Consulting Transgressions

The latest investigative article by Ann Constantino in The Baltimore Post reveals further hidden paid consulting by Dallas Dance, which casts new light on apparent deceptions wielded by the former BCPS superintendent during his tenure as a public official here. And Dance’s ethically fraught consulting efforts continue–the former public school leader has even co-opted photos of BCPS school children to promote his for-profit business.

From the Baltimore Post story: “Seven months after an ethics panel found former Superintendent S. Dallas Dance in violation of his contract for consulting for now defunct Chicago-based educational consulting firm, SUPES Academy, the former Baltimore County Public Schools education leader entered into a $42,501.06 contract with Pasadena Unified School District to provide leadership training for the system’s existing and aspiring principals.”

Through his limited liability company, Deliberate Excellence, LLC (DELLC), Dance signed a four-month agreement with the California-based school system totaling $38,000, including an additional $4,501.06 in reimbursements for travel and other expenses.”

Overall, BCPS district contracts, spending, and programs are widely suspect under this unfolding track record–expanding evidence to support a Special Review Audit by the Maryland Office of Legislative audits, as well as further school, county, and state review and investigations.

Of immediate concern: There should be a cease-and-desist order regarding the use of images of Baltimore County Public Schools children to promote the resigned superintendent’s for-profit company, The DDance Group, whose founder was recently indicted on four charges of perjury. Dance faces trial on those charges on March 8 at Baltimore County Circuit Court.
The website of the Dance Group currently features photos of Dance conversing with students, some of which are in the classrooms and hallways of Baltimore County Public Schools (also reported previously in this blog).  Was parent permission granted for Dallas Dance to use these children’s images for private advertising purposes? If parents did not opt-out of images to be used by the district, would that mean a former superintendent can just download, co-opt and use those photos? Doubtful. What school system rule or FERPA or privacy law — or ethics policy — does this violate? Someone within the district administration, school board, BCPS Office of Law, as well as county and state officials should follow this up. Right away. The lack of oversight in the district is alarming.
Do our leaders really want unsuspecting children being used for this purpose?
— Guest post, Joanne C.S.
(Note: Dance also entered into an apparent back-door contract within weeks of leaving the district, a scenario similar to Pasadena’s SUPES-style training, as indicated in the Baltimore Post story, which can also offer clues on various consulting conflicts.)
Here, photos of Baltimore County Public Schools children and others featured prominently to advertise The DDance Group, via the company website. See, especially, images of BCPS children wearing the light-blue ID lanyards from the failed ScholarChip $10 million district contract, and the pricey $1,400-plus HP Revolve laptops being used, essentially one-per-student under an unheard of $205 million contract. Various images appear on a revolving basis, and can be found elsewhere on the site, under Services. — JCS

Another Questionable No-bid Contract

“Former Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) Superintendent S. Dallas Dance accepted payment from a firm that also later did business with the district for a job the school system did not competitively bid, and which appears to run afoul of district procurement policies.  The vendor payment is one of two known incidents that occurred during Dance’s employment with the school system from 2012 -2017.

Records show that Dance worked as a consultant for the American Institutes for Research in 2015 and was paid $1,500 for the job.  Then, in the spring of 2017, Baltimore County’s education board approved a no-bid $750,000 contract, piggybacking on an unrelated agreement Chicago Public Schools (CPS) had with the vendor.  In the first instance, Dance accepted payments from education consulting company, SUPES Academy, for consultant work he did in 2013.”

Read more in this February 8th article from the Baltimore Post:  Another Questionable No-bid Contract in Dance’s Wake

And this related article — “Baltimore County schools awarded contract to group that had paid Dallas Dance” — from the February 8th Baltimore Sun.

“The Baltimore County school system last year awarded two contracts worth $1.5 million to a research organization that had previously paid former superintendent Dallas Dance as a consultant, records show. Dance did not disclose to the county that he had worked for the research organization, American Institutes for Research, as is required. His $1,500 payment by the company for consulting work in 2015 is detailed in last month’s indictment of Dance by a Baltimore County grand jury.”

Read more here.

We Trusted . . .

A guest Op-Ed by Bronwyn Mitchell-Strong

We trusted that the Baltimore County Board of Education would select a qualified superintendent. Instead, a special dispensation had to be given to allow Dallas Dance to serve as superintendent because he didn’t meet the minimum standards, including enough time in the classroom.

We trusted that the superintendent would follow the Maryland State Department of Education’s mission whose overarching strategic plan includes data-informed decisions and high quality resources. Instead, the superintendent gambled our children’s future on STAT Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow), a for-profit digital takeover of education fueled mostly by untried, untested, unproven, ed-tech programs.

We trusted the superintendent’s plan to pilot STAT in select “Lighthouse Schools,”for a time sufficient to evaluate efficacy and work out problems. Instead, STAT was rolled out quickly, despite no proven positive learning outcomes. We trusted that the superintendent would follow BCPS Rule 6002, Evaluation and Selection of Instructional Materials, which requires that selected materials be free of questions or activities that invade personal or family privacy by requiring students to reveal private, personal, or family information.  Instead, computer-based learning companies have been allowed to collect, store, and utilize student information without parental consent.

We trusted that BCPS would implement the recommendation to amend its existing policies to require competitive procurement methods for all contracts for services. Instead,  BCPS, through Rule 6002 which fosters such high-dollar no-bid contracts, continues to negotiate such contracts for unproven ed-tech programs and applications. We trusted that the Board of Education, County Council and County Executive would exercise fiduciary and efficacy oversight. Instead, approval for the funding of such sole-source contracts, and questionable curricular materials were freely given.

We trusted that the health and safety of our children would be of paramount importance. Instead, students are exposed to an unregulated amount of screen time in school with additional required for homework.  We trusted that schools would be maintained and upgraded regularly. Instead, Baltimore County is home to the second oldest inventory of schools in the state, buildings in disrepair, overcrowded, outdated, and even unsafe. We trusted that state and county tax dollars would be spent wisely. Instead, more than enough money to rebuild two new high schools is being spent on digitizing education.

And now that the curtain has been drawn back exposing an apparent web of deceit,  BCPS is asking us to trust it to conduct an audit, an audit that it has designed, an audit that is limited in scope – not the six years under the former superintendent, an audit that mostly cherry picks contracts that were bid out rather than focusing on the no-bid variety. This is tantamount to a fox auditing a hen house. No! Enough is enough… We need, nay, we deserve a full-fledged independent audit. So the little trust that we still have is now turning to our state representatives serving in the Office of Legislative Audits to stand up for the children of Baltimore County and conduct a Special Review Audit spanning Dallas Dance’s tenure with the county school district.

You have the power, and we have the vote.

Related:  Dance’s breach of trust

Technology as Teacher: Consulting Firm with Ties to Baltimore County Had Big Plans

More great work from local journalist Ann Costantino.  Reprinted from the February 3rd Baltimore Post.

If there ever were any doubt about the Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI) and its promotion of educational technology to school systems, a July 2011 ERDI Innovation Conference makes it abundantly clear.

One conference presenter in particular had a very specific message at the Atlanta event for education leaders and their school systems: that computer-centered learning for kindergarten through 12th grade was coming, and those in the audience would be making the changes – very soon.

“I want to give you a quick and conceptual look at why I think the pivot to ‘personalized digital learning’ is a really big deal, like one of the three or four of the most important things happening in the world,” said Tom Vander Ark, an author, speaker and investor in more than 70 technology companies.  “Secondly, I’m going to talk about how that’s going to happen in most of your schools,” he said.

In the audience, along with other education leaders, was former Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) superintendent, Dr. Joe Hairston.  Hairston, who reported the trip to his education board, immediately preceded Dr. S. Dallas Dance, who left the school system in June.

Dance, who was indicted last week on four counts of perjury for failing to disclose $147,000 of income he made as a consultant and speaker for almost a dozen companies and organizations, also withheld disclosure of a payment amounting to more than $4,000 from ERDI that the indictment said he received in 2015.

ERDI, an education consulting company based in Illinois, which pays education leaders to meet with its education product and services clients, says it provides a unique opportunity for superintendents to provide valuable feedback on its clients’ products.   But the unique access vendors are given to school system leaders, such as Dance, has been questioned in school systems as far as California, Chicago, Ohio, Iowa and even B.C. Canada.  Namely, concerns have been raised about potential conflicts of interest.  Especially troubling are contracts awarded to ERDI’s technology clients by the very school leaders who met with them.

In a November Op-Ed posted in the Towson Flyer, Joanne C. Simpson wrote that in Baltimore County there have been “about a dozen clients that have been awarded high-dollar contracts with BCPS.”  Included: “Discovery Education ($10 million); Code to the Future ($987,000); NWEA, MAP-testing provider ($3.9 million); McGraw Hill ($15.6 million);  Curriculum Associates/iReady ($3.2 million); DreamBox Learning ($3.2 million); and other for-profit companies whose multi-million dollar ‘contract spending authorities’ were approved by the Baltimore County Board of Education over the past five years—under the tenure of former superintendent Dallas Dance. The contracts are currently in place.”

Yet ERDI maintains it pairs its clients with school system leaders for the purpose of improving education products and services.  Its clients – which are comprised largely of education technology vendors – pay ERDI $13,000 to $66,000 in membership fees according to a rate card published in November by The New York Times.

Superintendents are then paid $500-$2,000 by ERDI to sit on panels with ERDI’s clients.

The result, some say, are new or increased contracts in school systems awarded after district leaders met with vendors.

The New York Times reported in November, for instance, that Dance met with two ERDI vendors in February of last year.  DreamBox, which provides game-based math software, and Curriculum Associates (iReady) sells reading software.  Five months after Dance met with each company, Baltimore County’s school board increased the school system’s spending authority with the vendors by $1.8 million and $2 million, respectively.

But while critics say ERDI provides opportunities for clients to sell to superintendents, the 2011 ERDI Innovation Conference provided more than just that.

Presenter Vander Ark told the audience at the Discovery Education-sponsored event to start “piloting upper division, online courses.”  He said, “Stop offering (Advanced Placement) AP courses” in the classroom.  Instead, “offer those online.  You can offer all 32 (classes) at consistent quality for less money than you’re currently doing it,” he said.  (BCPS has a $10 million contract with Discovery Education, a provider of digital curriculum.)

Previous Superintendent Hairston, who also served as chair for ERDI’s Superintendents Board of Directors starting in 2007, would leave BCPS one year after the conference. Hairston retired after 12 years serving as BCPS’s superintendent.  His last day was June 30, 2012.

The following day, the energetic and visionary, Dr. S. Dallas Dance, would take the helm, only to announce a system-wide personalized learning technology initiative eight months later.

Changes to curriculum, grading policies, Advanced Placement (AP), Special Education, language instruction, and the school system’s Gifted and Talented program would quickly follow Dance’s 2013 announcement. And a five-year strategic plan for S.T.A.T., the district’s laptop-for-every-child digital curriculum initiative, would roll-out full steam ahead.  (S.T.A.T. stands for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow.)

Then in 2014, Baltimore County’s education board would commit $205 million to the program and, later that year, Dance’s S.T.A.T. program would debut in 10 Baltimore County Public Schools as the system’s “S.T.A.T. Lighthouse Schools.”

The young superintendent, who was 30 when he took the job in Baltimore County, would also start his paid consulting work with ERDI’s clients in 2015 and 2016, according to two ERDI documents which list ERDI advisory members.

But years prior, at that July ERDI 2011 event, Vander Ark presented his plan for school systems when he gave his talk he called “Designing Digital Districts.”

He instructed the education leaders that, starting that upcoming 2011-2012 school year, it was time to get started with their school districts’ digital and virtual learning programs.

“Online assessment is coming in the next three years to most states and it’s a great opportunity to put a stake in the ground to build a three or four phase plan, starting next month,” he said.

Vander Ark — who was also Executive Director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and, despite lacking prior teaching experience, also served as superintendent of Washington State’s Federal Way Public Schools – told the education leaders that they should “be launching in September (2011), a Blended 6-10 math program” and “have a team of teachers work with two to three to 400 students” virtually and online.

“You ought to be piloting special services online.  Speech therapies have had big developments in the last year and can deliver better and cheaper and faster speech therapy online,” he said.

Vander Ark, who mentioned the cost savings of using technology in place of teachers several times during his presentation, also said he started the first kindergarten to 12th grade online school in the country, but that “this stuff has not made enough of a difference as it should.”

Nonetheless, the Ed-Tech mogul told the audience of education leaders that the reason the 2011 push was different was because, in addition to providing students with a computer-based environment in order to “improve learning,” changing staffing was also now seen as imperative.

Vander Ark told the audience of education leaders that the reduction in teachers would “improve productivity.”

“It means a different staffing model which costs less and works better,” he said. “It means a tough set of conversations…”


Mr. Vander Ark and executives at ERDI were not immediately available for comment.  To watch Mr. Vander Ark’s full presentation and the other presentations given at the 2011 ERDI Innovation Conference, click here.  (Link supported by Google Chrome). For the conference agenda, click here.

Clarification:  An earlier version of this story credited The Baltimore Sun’s Jan. 25 article regarding the increased contracted spending authority for DreamBox and Curriculum Associates after former Superintendent Dance met with the vendors at an ERDI conference five months before.  It was actually The New York Times that first broke that part of the story in its November 3rd article called How Silicon Valley Plans to Conquer the Classroom.