Maryland State Prosecutor Investigates Former Superintendent Dance: A few more details . . . updated

State prosecutors are investigating former Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance, multiple sources told the Baltimore Sun:

The Maryland State Prosecutor’s Office launched a criminal investigation more than six months ago, issuing a subpoena for school system records, and this month several people associated with the system were interviewed by investigators, sources said.”

And the troubles go much farther. Among issues apparently under review by the state: Dance’s “involvement with SUPES Academy,” which did business with BCPS and for which Dance consulted at the time. “In 2014, school system ethics officials ruled that Dance had violated ethics rules by taking a part time job with SUPES after the company got an $875,000 contract with the school system,” the Sun noted. UPDATE: For other reporting on SUPES and Dance, read also this in-depth story chronicling the former superintendent’s history with SUPES, its leaders, and an undisclosed affiliate company Synesi, according to Baltimore Post investigative reporter Ann Costantino.

Dance offered no comment to news reports of a current state prosecutor investigation, but this very recent video by the resigned superintendent speaks volumes.

Other details: the former county schools’ chief is embroiled in yet another contract controversy through his newly formed consulting company, The DDance Group (see below), which apparently contracted with Richmond Public Schools for advising services, including “leadership coaching,” without the knowledge of school board members there. See also a contract doc, RPS board member comments, and post by local news blog RVAdirt.

Soon after leaving Baltimore County, Dance was hired as an RPS consultant at $12,500 per month, and was cut checks for $25,000 before questions were raised about the propriety of the consulting contract, according to a Sept. 25 CBS6 news report.

(To get a look at the many high-dollar contracts approved here in Baltimore County–and $300 million-plus in costs related to Dance’s laptop-per-student “digital ecosystem”– see this post.  Such mostly no-bid contracts, including $10 million for Discovery Education‘s products, are still in place.)

Back in 2013, an investigative news story on SUPES, which first revealed Dance’s consulting job, was published by The Chicago Reporter and then followed by the Sun. Dance dropped the outside job, but stayed on at BCPS.

Former chief of Chicago Public Schools Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a longtime mentor for Dance, was among those embroiled in the SUPES scandal and was among those convicted this year for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks and sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison.

Dance, who promised not to consult again after the ethics finding on SUPES (as his contract also later stipulated), has been cited for other ethics violations and criticized for various “appearances of conflict of interest,” as well as costly taxpayer-funded travel to numerous edtech conferences and events, among other issues. (There are also thousands in BCPS-paid costs related to trips at swanky hotels and resorts in Chicago and Las Vegas during the SUPES/Synesi era, though an employee name is not listed, according to a BCPS database noted here). Dance’s Maryland-registered limited liability corporation Deliberate Excellence Consulting LLC, formed in August 2012 (one month after his hiring by BCPS), was listed as Active and “Not In Good Standing” a few months ago, as also reported in this bloga status which remains.

Many related concerns–including promotional videos Dance did for school system vendors, such as Hewlett-Packard–were first brought up in this op-ed in April 2016.

According to amended financial disclosure forms filed “under penalty of perjury” after the last ethics findings, Dance reported no personal income from his LLC, 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 unexpectedly announced his resignation in April, partly saying he wanted to spend more time with family. Meanwhile, a few of his post-BCPS consulting positions are no longer listed on those firms’ sites nor on Dance’s LinkedIn profile page, including “Partner, Strategos Group,” and a full-time senior vice president position he announced with MGT Consulting Group when he left the superintendent position on June 30.

On LinkedIn, Dance now only features his own Richmond Va.-based consulting company The DDance Group, Inc. and his role as founder, president and CEO. The DDance Group’s website was launched recently and can be found here. Dance’s overall LinkedIn profile describes him thus: “Father, Leader, Educator, Author & Innovator Reasonably impatient about improving educational outcomes for ALL children.”

Dance’s private consulting group lists numerous testimonials apparently linked partly to his $287,000 annual taxpayer-paid BCPS role as super, as well as conferences and events at which he spoke during his tenure here. The site also showcases photos of Baltimore County Public School children (posted for corporate advertising purposes . . . is that with their permission or that of their parents?).

At least one DDance Group photo prominently features Hewlett-Packard’s HP EliteBook Revolve 810 G2, the centerpiece of Dance’s controversial signature laptop-per-student program, Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT). The laptop/tablet hybrids have been leased under an unheard-of $205 million single contract spending authority awarded to Daly Computers, Inc. STAT has morphed into a $300-million-plus six-year “digital conversion” (including ongoing digital curricula, infrastructure upgrades, continual software license fees, and professional development—public school district costs that would rise substantially). Daly Computers, then a Hewlett-Packard affiliate, has been a top donor to the Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools. 

Despite Dance’s departure, STAT is still being pursued and expanded under current Interim Superintendent Verletta White, who pressed for a nearly $4 million expansion of just two software contracts, iReady and DreamBox Math, this year (see postscript below), despite questions by school board members about the programs’ high costs and lack of objective evidence of benefits. Via the software programs, elementary school children as young as 6 watch math or English language videos, and do gaming-style lessons, or play video games as “rewards” on the devices during the school day.

Among other topics, SUPES promoted edtech and “personalized” computer-based learning  in its SUPES superintendent training, including “virtual learning,” during the years Dance participated.  Messages offered superintendents from SUPES-related training in Chicago include: “We make a huge mistake by thinking that facts make a difference. Facts don’t build trust, perception does.” And, perhaps partly explaining why the high costs and actual results of digital initiatives (see postscript) have not been examined by regional media so far: SUPES and similar training programs have long advised school leaders that the “key is having the media report “news” from your point of view.” BCPS routinely refers to local news agencies as “media partners.”

As CEO of The DDance Group, Dance remains on the board of directors of ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, an edtech industry support group where Dance long held a board position as BCPS superintendent. ISTE also promotes Dance’s new biz contact info and, with language similar to his LLC charter, Dance’s bio features his “consulting management firm that partners with schools, districts, governing agencies and organizations to improve educational outcomes . . . ” He also remains listed as a Senior Fellow at the e-Republic* affiliated Center for Digital Education (CDE), roles reserved for “experienced and respected state and local government practitioners and scholars who have demonstrated records of success in support of public service.”

In the low-tech The DDance Group promotional video posted on Sept. 14, an unshaven Dance says he has 20 clients already and hopes to garner the help of others to solve “tough, tough, challenges:” “I have been very fortunate, very humbled, very blessed by what many would consider a pretty successful career, even though it is nowhere near over.”

— A guest post by Joanne C. Simpson, a university lecturer, BCPS stakeholder, and former staff writer at The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Johns Hopkins Magazine.

Postscripts:

*As noted here in The Baltimore Post: The company e.Republic (which backs the Center for Digital Education) works with over 700 companies – from “Fortune 500s to startups” –  to help executives ‘power their public sector sales and marketing success.’ Among those listed: Intel, IBM, Blackboard, Microsoft, Aerohive, Apple, Samsung, Dell and Google.” Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, and other companies are familiar entities at BCPS.

Also, among a litany of mostly no-bid digital curricula contracts recently implemented at the county’s public school district: the reading/English language software program iReady, which had a $1.2 million BCPS contract spending authority expanded in July to $3.2 million for fewer than two years more, as approved by the Board of Education and requested by interim superintendent White. 
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iReady by Curriculum Associates: contract spending authority
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DreamBox Math, meanwhile, jumped nearly $2 million more to $3.2 million for just three more years.
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Such price tags total a whopping more than $6 million for two software programs alone in a cash-strapped school system with many pressing needs. Contract spending authorities approved by the Board of Education for such no-bid curricula or related contracts are now surpassing $80 million, just for the next several years, BCPS records show. Yet the school district cannot pay for enough social workers, with a BCPS ratio of only one worker to serve more than 1,000 students, when “the American School of Social Work recommends one social worker for every 250 students,” as this post also eloquently reveals. And this in a school district where nearly half of students live in poverty.
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On a hot day in early September, in one of dozens of county schools without air conditioning due to “limited funding,” the temperatures inside classrooms were recorded as high as 114 degrees. One 16-year-old “felt crippled by a pounding headache. Her asthma started acting up. She put her head onto her desk instead of working on how to translate DNA to RNA” in her biology class. It was simply too hot:. “It was impossible to learn.”
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Side note:
In the end, many would agree digital technology has a place as a modern tool of learning, yet where is the balance?  Analyses are required when children’s minds and futures are involved, especially for the young. Consider this objective 2017 National Education Policy Center report on “blended and virtual learning;” and a balanced recent Business Insider story on DreamBox, which also questions the “personalized-learning” computer-based approach, and points out just how many data points are collected on children50,000 per hour per student just by DreamBox. (Children have been required by BCPS to spend a certain amount of time on DreamBox.) Meanwhile, well-conducted research, that’s not funded by tech companies themselves, does not reveal statistically significant positive outcomes. Current software should not replace teachers, as promoters and investors claim it can. And minor tech tools should not be used as silver bullets. Overall, consider the widespread industry marketing campaigns and venture capitalist profit-margins behind it all. — JCS
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STAT Year Three Year-end Evaluation

Despite Dr. Dance’s departure, Interim Superintendent Ms. Verletta White is committed to STAT.  As she noted in her message to the BCPS community, First-Week Thoughts, July 6, 2017:

“I do want to make clear that we are not changing course or introducing new initiatives. Our schools are doing well, and technology is a key leverage tool for personalized learning. S.T.A.T. digital learning and Passport elementary world language instruction are just part of how we do business.”

The STAT digital learning initiative kicked off in BCPS in 2014.  Three years later, here are Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Research and Reform in Education’s (CRRE) Year report and slide-show presentation for 2016-17.  Both were presented at the Board of Education’s August 8, 2017 meeting (click on Meetings tab).  Video available here.  STAT report begins at about 1 hour, 11 minutes into the meeting.

The BOE Curriculum Committee will discuss STAT at its Thursday, September 14 meeting; the meeting begins at 4:30pm in Building E, Room 114.  Meetings are recorded and archived.

Report Highlights:

“An examination of MAP scores in Lighthouse and non-Lighthouse Grades 1 -3 showed some impact on student achievement. Lighthouse students in Grades 1-2 exhibited improvements in reading and mathematics scores across all three years of implementation and Grade 3 increased reading and mathematics scores in all but the present year. Further, all grades exceeded the national average mathematics and reading scores. Non-Lighthouse Grades 1-3 also exhibited improvements in reading scores across all three years and, similarly, Grades 1-2 increased mathematics scores. Grades 1-3 exceeded the national.”

“Principals and S.T.A.T. teachers perceived that enhanced teaching practices and stronger curricula were increasing mastery of CCSS. However, they were generally hesitant to attribute the MAP gains directly or solely to S.T.A.T. We agree with this assessment for several reasons. First, gains in achievement were not projected by the Logic Model this early in the implementation, although we cannot rule out more rapidly occurring impacts. Second, there are numerous programs and initiatives in BCPS, which could contribute to improved student achievement independently of S.T.A.T.”

Lighthouse (LH, pilot) Grade 3 MAP (RIT) Reading Scores:

Pre-program (2013-14): 188.52

Year 1 (2014-15): 194.14

Year 2 (2015-16): 198.37

Year 3 (2016-17): 197.49

Non-LH Grade 3 MAP (RIT) Reading Scores:

Pre-program (2014-15): 194.30

Year 1 (2015-16): 196.30

Year 2 (2016-17): 196.57

STAT-us BCPS NOTE:  While MAP gains are indicated in the report, a close reading shows them to be marginal. The RIT (Rasch Unit) score reflects a student’s academic knowledge, skills, and abilities. RIT scores range from 100 to 350. Additionally, MAP (a growth measure) and PARCC (a proficiency measure) are very different.  As noted on Page 134 of the BCPS FY18 Operating Budget, in FY2016, only 50.2% of third-graders were reading on grade level. Minimal growth in RIT scores is not closing major achievement gaps.

Issues:

~ Off-task device use. “Teachers at all levels described the challenge of monitoring and managing device use during instructional hours, and their comments reflected those when asked to describe off-task/inappropriate use above.”

~ Technical issues. “Some of the technical issues expressed by middle and high school teachers centered on students’ lack of accountability with devices, such as returning to school with a depleted battery, forgetting the device at home, or breaking the devices. Other technical issues mentioned by teachers at all grade level included slow Internet or BCPSOne not functioning.”

~ Lack of support. Teachers at all levels conveyed feeling overwhelmed and not supported with technology integration. Some teachers described not having enough time for planning, as noted by a Lighthouse middle school teacher: “TIME!! More planning time is definitely needed!!!” Others mentioned the challenge of attempting to learn new approaches to instruction along with other initiatives. A Lighthouse elementary teacher described the struggle of “incorporating the new grading system at the same time as technology,” while another noted, “My greatest challenge is just not taking on too much at one time. Learning each new innovative ‘thing’ at a time rather than trying to do it all at once.” Others echoed this sentiment, as a Lighthouse middle school teacher described the challenge of “deciding which resources to use and which to pass on. There were plenty of resources available but it felt as though I was supposed to utilize as many as I could rather than focusing on/mastering a few. I eventually minimized the resources I utilized.”

Of great concern was JHU researcher Dr. Morrison’s statement, made during her presentation to the BOE, that the initiative was overwhelmingly supported by the community.  This was based on the 2017 Stakeholder Survey, which offered three vague and leading questions regarding personalized learning and technology.  These questions would mean little to community members altogether unaware of STAT and high-school students and parents not even connected to STAT (in 2016-17, the initiative was only in place in four Lighthouse (pilot) high schools).

Personalized Learning:  Parents, school-based staff, and central office staff expressed the most agreement that making learning personalized for students helps teachers meet the academic needs of all students.

Access to Technology:  Agreement was high across students, parents, school-based staff, and central office staff that access to technology increases opportunities for making learning more personalized for students.

Teacher Use of Technology:  Students, parents, school administrators, and central office staff had similarly high levels of agreement that teachers can use technology to meet the academic needs of all students.

Resigned BCPS Superintendent Dallas Dance Takes Consulting Jobs: UPDATED

A guest op-ed by Joanne C. Simpson

Dallas Dance could be coming to a school district near you. For a visit anyway. Dance’s new role after leaving his $287,000-plus annual superintendent job at Baltimore County Public Schools–a cocktail of national consulting gigs.

Two companies, MGT Consulting Group and the Center for Digital Education, have had at least tangential relationships with numerous BCPS vendors, the superintendent, and/or the school system itself.

UPDATE: A third was recently posted on the former superintendent’s LinkedIn site:Partner, Strategos Group, Jul 2017 – Present. Work with SELECT clients who are committed to high-impact business growth and transaction advisory services.” (The co-founder and managing partner of Strategos, A. “Trey” Traviesa, is also CEO and chairman of the board at MGT. In the for-profit companies’ skill set: “leveraging strategic relationships.”)

The day before Dance’s final day on June 30, the superintendent announced the full-time position with MGT Consulting Group, a large Florida-based educational consulting company with offices nationwide. Among MGT goals: “Future-Facing. MGT recognizes the changing face of education, as requisite knowledge shifts and desirable goals are reimagined so students are prepared for a 21st century workplace.”

A current focus of MGT Consulting, one shared by Dance, is “technology strategic planning:” “Our experts know how to effectively produce strategic planning documents including all necessary inputs and are able to present the technology strategic plans to governing bodies in a way that encourages adoption.”

Dance’s strategic planning skills are evident in reports for BCPS, including Blueprint 2.0. Yet there are questions about the financial efficacy–as well as no objective evidence of positive student learning outcomes–for Dance’s signature laptop-per-student initiative known as Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT). Among other controversies, Dance was criticized when Baltimore County’s standardized PARCC student test scores last year came in lower than districts in the region, and in some cases dropped below the state average. Still unproven since launched in 2014, STAT nonetheless is being used widely–by Dance and others, including BCPS’ digital director Ryan Imbriale–as an example to replicate in other school districts around the country. 

Dance and other top district administrators have also traveled widely across the U.S., spending hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars to do just that. See post with details here.

The backdrop: Computer and software sales to schools in the U.S. are increasingly big business—a Silicon Valley-born market projected to hit $21 billion by 2020.

***

Among other links, MGT Consulting Group had a contract with Baltimore County Public Schools in the past, Dance later said, noting he will be a senior vice president for MGT, in part “to lead a new effort to provide school systems advice on improving academic performance.”

And a second part-time consulting position: a Senior Fellow at the Center for Digital Education (CDE), advising technology industry companies creating educational products. Dance, a longtime public school official, will now work inside that industry, yet consult with school districts as well.

As recently reported: “Specializing in K-12 and higher education technology trends, policy and funding, the CDE is also a division of e.Republic, a national research company which focuses exclusively on education on the state and local government levels.  According to their website, e.Republic works with over 700 companies – from “Fortune 500s to startups” –  in order to help those companies ‘power their public sector sales and marketing success.’  Among the companies listed: Intel, IBM, Blackboard, Microsoft, Aerohive, Apple, Samsung, Dell and Google.” Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, and other companies are familiar entities at BCPS. (See contracts below).

Why these consulting groups? And why now? (Dance resigned just one year into a second four-year contract, giving the district just two months notice). Perhaps an answer is partly here: A recently approved change in BCPS’ Ethics Code apparently raises questions about any employee participating in, or negotiating a job with, an entity doing business with BCPS and related (see below).

Ethics code revisions also appear to put limits on any employee participating/holding a position in a Limited Liability Corporation. (Dance has just such an LLC.) The timing of all this is quite likely not coincidental.

Dance unexpectedly announced his resignation on Tuesday, April 18, the day various Ethics Code changes were set for a first read by the Board of Education. BCPS’ Policy Review Committee, which is also advised by the district’s General Council Margaret-Ann F. Howie, had suggested the following amendments, among others:

See the policy here and linked below: http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AN3JHM4B9A7F/$file/8363_Policy_PRC_3-13-17.pdf

The Ethics Code details: Policy 8363 “Conflict of Interest–Prohibited Conduct,” with added language in ALL CAPS, notes that except as otherwise permitted, a school official may not participate in any matter in which the following is a party: “A business entity, INCLUDING A LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY OR A LIMITED LIABILITY PARTNERSHIP, for which the school official or a QUALIFYING relative of the official is an officer, director, trustee, partner or employee.”

In Dance’s 2016 financial disclosure forms, he acknowledged ownership of the LLC Deliberate Excellence Consulting. Dance wrote that Deliberate Excellence, registered in Maryland, was formerly in the name of his father, Roy Dance, in statements made “under penalties of perjury,” according to the forms. (See more on discrepancies with the LLC in Postscript/Update2 below). 

Does this Ethics Code revision, which would take effect after Dance leaves, make such directorship a complication or a conflict? Seems so. Maybe that LLC was too important to let go?

Dance–who has declined to comment on STAT ‘s more than $300 million in costs, his taxpayer-funded travel and related issues–reported no personal income from the LLC.

Among other recent developments, Google Alerts on June 12 noted that Dance is also publishing a book by the same name as his LLC: Deliberate Excellence.

“SAGE Publishing: Shaun Dallas Dance Baltimore County Public Schools, Superintendent. Deliberate Excellence. Professional Book.” It’s unclear if Dance has received a financial advance for the book, which is due out in early 2018, or if that would be prohibited under the district’s ethics code; his role as superintendent is cited specifically. Any income would need to be reported on financial disclosure forms, where disparities have led to recent financial disclosure violations for Dance. 

Also, under the revised Ethics Code Policy 8363 is 2 (c and d), which notes that a “school official may not participate in any matter in which any of the following is a party [including] a business entity with which the school official . . HAS APPLIED FOR A POSITION OR is negotiating EMPLOYMENT.” It appears that also covers any business with a contract with the district, according to the policy. (The language is rather convoluted. Any employment attorneys out there?) A quick search of BCPS procurement databases does not reveal a current contract for MGT Consulting Group. Will we see one down the pike?

Dance does have numerous crossover affiliations with the Center for Digital Education, its partners, and a related publication, Converge, winning awards and accolades here, here and here–the last in which Dance was named “Maryland Outstanding Leader Using Technology in 2017,” just several weeks before the superintendent announced his resignation: “Dr. Dance’s honor also qualifies him to compete at the national level for an award from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).” The state award was given by the Maryland affiliate of ISTE, which is also listed as a CDE “collaborator.”

Yet Dance also serves on the board of ISTE, and did so while superintendent. He presented at ISTE conferences and conducted numerous “telephone conferences” with ISTE’s board members, according to his superintendent Weekly Updates. See this Bloomberg profile of ISTE, Inc., which notes Dance’s board re-appointment, as well as ISTE revenues and tax forms–annual revenue topping $15.2 million in 2014, the most recent year included.

ISTE edtech sponsors and corporate members, meanwhile, include Microsoft, Discovery Education, CDW-G, and other for-profit companies also awarded mostly no-bid multi-million dollar contracts with BCPS under Dance’s tenure. (Just the three named above approach nearly $18 million over the next few years alone; See also contract links below). ISTE’s sponsor contribution levels are marked here, including ‘Mission’ sponsors like Microsoft at $150,000 annually.

There are way too many edtech ties here . . . 

(Even during the superintendent’s last week on the job, according to his 6/30/17 Weekly Update, Dance spent two school days attending the “International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) quarterly board meeting in San Antonio, TX.” CDE officials apparently also attended, announcing Dance’s fellowship position in a press release prior to his actually leaving).

The Ethics Code revisions, approved by the board at the June 13 meeting, would apparently need to be reviewed by state officials before being made law, which is expected in July. Dance’s last day: June 30. Interim superintendent Verletta White officially takes the helm of the 112,000-student school district on July 1. (A BCPS top administrator, White is also linked to the CDE as a member of the center’s Chief Academic Officers Group.)

Overall, were Superintendent Dance’s consulting and travel proclivities too much for our cash-strapped public school system, with its many unmet needs? Whether or not recent Ethics Code changes factored into the superintendent’s departure, various violations or perceptions of conflicts of interest could be underlining issues.

Perhaps this mostly private-sector consulting scenario better suits his promotional charms. The new positions do allow him the flexibility to live close to family in Richmond, Va. Either way, it seems the nationwide trips promoting the expansion of technology in education–much of that travel on the public dime–has indeed paid off for the superintendent’s career and future, and might yet do the same for other edtech traveling BCPS administrators.

In the end, however, what does it all mean for BCPS students?

Joanne C. Simpson is a former staff writer at The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Johns Hopkins Magazine, as well as a BCPS stakeholder, college educator, and freelance writer based in Baltimore.

Postscript/Update 2:

Dance’s Deliberate Excellence Consulting (DEC, LLC) also has a checkered history. Even though the superintendent vowed not to consult after his first ethics violation for a side job with the SUPES Academy–with which BCPS was doing business–questions remain. Dance “agreed that he will 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,” according to the Baltimore Sun.

Here is a thorough post on the LLC’s history.  And, as of now, Deliberate Excellence Consulting LLC (ID no. W14868442) is still ACTIVE, yet also listed as “Not in Good Standing” with the State of Maryland. The document still cites Roy R. Dance as the resident agent. See possible reasons for the new status, excerpted below.

https://egov.maryland.gov/BusinessExpress/EntitySearch/BusinessInformation/W14868442

Not in Good Standing” means the business entity is not in compliance with one or more Maryland laws that apply to businesses and their responsibilities in this State. The status can be returned to Good Standing by addressing the manner in which the business is out of compliance.”

“The most common reasons that a business is not in good standing are
– A missing Business Personal Property Return (PPR), also called a Form 1 – A monetary penalty resulting from the late filing of a PPR
– An issue with the Maryland Office of the Comptroller
– An issue with the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation – A check or other form of payment that was dishonored
– Not having an active resident agent.”

And related BCPS contract spending authority links:

Microsoft, $2.9 million

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/060915%20JMI-624-15%20Microsoft%20Software%20Solutions.pdf

Discovery Education, $10 million

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/092716%20RGA-127-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Faculty%20Professional%20Development%20Streaming%20Content%20and%20Related%20Services.pdf

CDW-G, $5 million (partial)

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/120616%20RGA-107-07%20Modification%20-%20The%20National%20Joint%20Powers%20Alliance%20Purchasing%20Consortium.pdf

IBM $2.6 million

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/JMI-614-04%20BOARD%20EXHIBIT%202-3-2015.pdf

And among many others, a contract spending authority for tech just approved 6/13/17. Apple, Inc., within a consortium that also includes Dell and CDW-G: $20 million

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/061317%20JMI-631-17%204%20Information%20Technology%20Hardware%20LB%20.pdf

Edtech Travel Part II: Boom or Bust in Baltimore County Public Schools’ Budget?

UPDATE: Related information on the post below and its predecessor, Part I:

Is BCPS in Need of a Financial Audit?

A guest op-ed by Joanne C. Simpson

For those in education technology circles, travel opportunities abound.

Consider this EdTechTalk list of more than 1,500 mostly edtech conferences worldwide between late 2016 and December 2017, ranging from “The Digital Education Show Middle East” in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to the “Illinois Education and Technology Conference (IETC)” in Springfield, Illinois.

Computer and software sales to schools in the U.S. are increasingly big business—a Silicon Valley-born market projected to hit $21 billion by 2020.

Baltimore County Public Schools’ top administrators have visited their share of such events—in which the future of digital education, as well as BCPS’ STAT laptop-per-student program and marketplace edtech products are widely discussed. These are mostly multiple trips—by multiple BCPS staffers—to California, Arizona, and Florida, and as far away as Geongju, Korea.

A recent op-ed in The Towson Flyer revealed the cost of five such trips for BCPS Superintendent S. Dallas Dance: nearly $11,000 disclosed after a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request. Records show Dance, whose recent unexpected resignation takes effect on July 1, took more than 35 out-of-state trips to related conferences or events during his five years at the helm of the 112,000-student district. The overall costs of the superintendent’s taxpayer-reimbursed trips, however, remain unclear.

(See this new update on Dance’s post-BCPS consultant jobs for entities involved with such travel and other edtech ties. The BCPS superintendent’s last official day: June 30. Dance also might soon be visiting a school system near you.)

Some professional conferences and leadership events are expected in a large organization. The superintendent expenses reviewed were generally higher than district or federal policy guidelines, but not necessarily lavish. Yet such costs at BCPS go far beyond one person, and the numbers are larger.

Much, much larger it appears: At least several hundred thousand in taxpayer dollars. Likely in the next year alone.

Recently revealed: In the 2017-18 budget nearly $300,000 in BCPS-confirmed employee travel and related expenses show up under “Other Charges,” just for a few offices and a handful of professional positions mostly under the Office of the Superintendent.

The Board of Education, while reviewing the 2017-18 $1.6 billion proposed superintendent budget in January, asked the administration: “Under the Office of the Superintendent, please detail what is included in the “Other Charges” category…

Answer: “Travel, mileage, conferences, professional dues for all offices, [mostly within the Office of the Superintendent] p. 141–178: $281,063.”

Trouble is: Fewer than 20 professional staffers are listed in the bulk of those offices (and not all even travel),  including the office of the Chief Communications Officer. (Such positions are indicated in the budget under “Professional FTEs” on those pages.)

If many “other charges” pan out the same for other departments—travel, mileage, conferences, professional dues—such taxpayer-funded costs could be mind-boggling, the BCPS budget indicates. Including several other travel-savvy offices, that tally would likely mushroom beyond $700,000—just for next school year.

What else might fall under “Other Charges?” Unspecified contracts? Events? (Supplies, equipment, and service contracts are already listed in other categories). Questions posed to the administration regarding such figures have gone unanswered publicly so far. (See specific questions below. Will update with any info provided).

And why do such vague categories as “Other Charges” appear so frequently in the BCPS budget at all? Unfortunately, this seems indicative of the school district’s hit-or-miss transparency track record.

Anyone who travels knows how expensive it can be. There are flights, hotel charges, and sometimes artisanal meals. Charged by Dance and reimbursed by BCPS (though a superintendent certainly deserves to eat decently when traveling): Lunch charges of $68 at Austin’s South Congress Cafe, including calamari with orange ginger, an $18 omelet and a frisse & endive salad during the March 2015 SXSWedu conference. A few hours later: a $60 dinner at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, featuring two bowls of Louisiana seafood gumbo and one pan-seared tilapia entree, BCPS-released receipts show.

Nearly half of BCPS students qualified last year for free or reduced price meals—many living under the federal poverty level of $20,420 for a family of three.

And there is, after all, this from the previous op-ed: “Overall BCPS employee travel costs, which have been questioned by a few members of the Board of Education, remain unclear. BCPS expenditure databases reveal dozens of jaunts by employees, not listed by name, to such swanky hotels as SAX Chicago Hotel; the iconic luxe Fontainebleau Hotel in Florida (six 2012 trips: $5,250); and three apparent Las Vegas 5-star casinos and resorts: the “Venetian/Palazzo,”and Red Rock Casino, Resort and Spa, according to sources familiar with the database.”

What might be otherwise “hidden” in budgetary categories? This is public taxpayer money, so we certainly have a right to know. Here is the breakdown on some amounts in question, according to the district’s FY18 budget:

In other departments or offices in which travel or professional dues seems to have occurred, such “Other Charges” would top $441,000 for FY18, even though fewer than two dozen professional positions are listed. Add that to the Office of Superintendent figures, in which ‘travel and related’ is indeed the case, and we are looking at $720,000. Again, just for next year alone.

Here are a few budget figures to consider: Chief Academic Officer: “Other Charges” $24,500 for fiscal year 2018 (FY18). For World Languages, which includes the Passport program and Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL), that number is about $74,000.

All for junkets and such? Likely not. But, again, what happens when we throw lots of expenditures into a category titled Other Charges? A financial blind spot. Further review of one BCPS database reveals various dues or fees, for example, paid to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), items ranging from $344 to $837 and linked to mid-level administration. A primary ISTE mission sponsor: Microsoft, a central BCPS vendor.

(STAT mentor/teacher travel appears to be in addition to these figures. And there are numerous indications of out-of-state travel and related by mid-level administrators, principals, a few board members, and others elsewhere in the budget. Under the Office of the Board of Education, for example, the 2017-18 school year budget lists another $100,948 in such “Other Charges,” (p. 135), confirmed by the admin, again, as “professional dues, conference fees, travel, mileage reimbursement, and other board member expenses.”)

Other offices prone to trips and related, especially edtech-oriented, include Digital Learning ($70,500 in ‘Other Charges’ for FY18), Executive Director Information Technology, ($98,200), Executive Director Innovative Learning ($107,0000, with just one professional FTE), and Innovative Learning Projects ($66,700). (Seriously, these are all different offices.)

For these and the other departments mentioned above, extrapolate just a few years back, to 2015-16, which is cited in the budget as “actual FY16.” The amount for such “Other Charges” for just three years is staggering:

$1.6 million.

More than a million and a half dollars, possibly for a few dozen employees’ “travel, mileage, conferences, professional dues” or similar costs? Can’t be . . . right? What else? (Some very large “Other Charges” single line items are clearly not such costs, but are for employee benefits, retirement, and insurance, administration responses to the board indicate.)

Overall, listing ‘actual’ cost categories vs. nebulous “other charges” would make this all clear, leaving no opportunity for shell games. A full audit—internal, county, and/or state legislative—is required for these and other concerning issues, including about $75 million in digital curricula contract spending authorities—many with for-profit companies that attend, sponsor, and lead panels at these same edtech industry conferences and events. See costs summary and supporting links here. With an audit, we would know what’s what.

BCPS, after all, was criticized in a 2015 Maryland legislative Audit Report (see Appendix) for not requiring competitive procurements for all contracts. Under current BCPS curricula selection policy, records show, many of the digital software program contracts are No Bid.

BCPS vendors or “partners,” as oft-referred to by the administration, include Discovery Education, Dreambox Learning, Curriculum Associates/iReady, McGraw-Hill, and so on (see contract links below). The total for just these four companies’ contract spending authorities with BCPS: Nearly $30 million, with expansions likely. And that doesn’t even include a $205 million contract with a provider of the Hewlett-Packard $1,400 laptops, which are to be assigned to each student in 1st-12th grade under the Dance-founded STAT (Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow) initiative. (That megacontract did go out to bid, though a few board members have questioned the process).

Overall spending and edtech links have been detailed in various op-eds and venues over the past year, revealing costs of nearly $300 million in the program’s first several years alone, and almost $60 million annually thereafter. Yet the Grand Total, under STAT and Dance’s umbrella plan Blueprint 2.0 etc., still remains unknown. And the results? So far there is no objective evidence that the experimental program even works, and the county’s PARCC standardized student test scores have dropped, with the district average mostly sinking below the state average in Reading, Writing, and Math in 2016.

Baltimore County Public Schools is moving forward with Interim Superintendent Verletta White, who has risen in BCPS’ ranks and is an experienced leader by all measures. White, BCPS’ Chief Academic Officer who has overseen curricula selection, takes the reigns of the district on July 1. White has said she plans “to be a steady hand in carrying out the policies that Dance has begun.”

Will Verletta White’s personal vision also lead our public schools?

Specific questions have been asked. Authentic answers are welcome. Even if not all “Other Charges” are related to travel and such, a costly edtech travel/promotion culture could continue if the STAT initiative expands as currently planned.

This would include ongoing, numerous out-of-state presentations by Ryan Imbriale, executive director of BCPS’ Department of Innovative Learning. In January, Imbriale spoke at the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando, along with his wife, IT director Jeanne Imbriale and a couple other BCPS employees.

Did BCPS reimburse expenses for four staffers at $2,000 or so each for this one event—costing taxpayers $8,000 plus? 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.”

Couldn’t one or so BCPS leaders well-represent our schools?

Perhaps some costs were paid by the event or edtech sponsors, which could raise other ethics issues. (That was the case for the April 2016 ASU GSV (Global Silicon Valley) Summit in San Diego, California for four BCPS staffers, according to the district.) Also: Were any BCPS administrators paid by outside entities for speeches or presentations? Board members and others have posed this question. Answers remain scarce. And what about any related business consulting opportunities, as increasingly seems likely . . .

It took a year to get access to documents, without exorbitant record fees, for Superintendent Dance’s travel for just several trips. How long would it take for multiple employees? Why not make these costs and specific activities clear?

In the end, that sunny Florida trip in the middle of winter could pay up to half the annual salary of a kindergarten assistant in classes with 25 or more children.

And for some of that $700,000 in “other charges” for next year alone: According to education advocate Dr. Laurie Taylor-Mitchell: “About $600,000 would eliminate the costs of Reduced Price Meals for the entire school system for one year, which would help the 7,199 students qualifying for Reduced Price Meals get the food they need in school.” That would even leave “$33,400 for 167 schools to stock saltines in the nurse’s offices so that when students need to take medications they don’t have to take them on empty stomachs if they haven’t eaten.”

The remaining $86,000: “About $950 for each of 90 schools where the poverty rate is 50% or higher to stock non-perishable food in social worker, counselor, and Per Pupil Worker offices,” according to Taylor-Mitchell, who advocates for social justice in education. Hunger, and related stomach pain, can contribute to discipline/behavioral issues, which seem to be on the rise.

“With these kinds of critical needs within BCPS, and there are many others pertaining to support staff ratios and inadequate mental health services, it’s imperative that BCPS undergoes an audit to evaluate what funding could be allocated to essential services supporting education.”

These are the true costs here. And, for students, it all adds up.

–Joanne C. Simpson is a former reporter at The Miami Herald, a BCPS stakeholder, college educator, and freelance writer based in Baltimore. This is the last in a series of op-eds on BCPS edtech-related costs under the current administration.

Specific questions referred to BCPS administrators several weeks ago:

  1. 1. Please detail Other Charges” for the line items and dollar figures cited below in the FY18 budget; are such charges same or similar to above—”travel, mileage, conferences, professional dues?” Please specify for each figure cited.
  2. Would such expenditures also be travel, mileage, conferences, professional dues in FY17 and “FY16 actual,” which are also listed in the budget? Departments/offices listed below are outside of budget pages 141-178 noted in the answer above. Some numbers might be approximate. See budget pages listed:

Chief Academic Officer, p. 223. FY18, see “Other Charges” under ‘categories’

$17,319, $4,000, $3,160

World Languages p. 247 (Passport) FY18, same as above.

$11,650, $62,345

Digital Learning p. 277 FY18,

$26,810, $21,880, $21,758

Executive Director Information Technology p.205, FY18,

$98,185

Executive Director Innovative Learning, p. 274, FY18,

$67,000, $40,000

Innovative Learning Projects, p. 279, FY18,

$14,200, $52,500

Postscript: BCPS stakeholders, keep watching. This is the sort of contract that might show up again before the school board, especially during quiet summer months: “Virtual Learning Support, contract RGA-101-13 (US Army Med Research Acquisition Activity).” U. S. Army Medical Research? Conducted on children? The $500,000 contract, apparently running out, was led by local gaming/VR contractor, Breakaway, LTD. Yet Virtual Reality use on children is banned in some D.C. museums and elsewhere because of vision and brain-related medical issues. Studies reveal health effects. In the end, how much are we willing to experiment on our children?

Brain development and vision concerns noted in this Live Science article: “Are Virtual Reality Headsets Safe for Kids?”

One issue with “VR is the so-called vergence-accommodation conflict. When you view the world normally, your eye first points the eyeballs — vergence — and then focuses the lenses — accommodation — on an object, and then these two processes are coupled to create a coherent picture.”

“In a 2014 study in rats, researchers at the University of California found that the neurons in a brain region associated with spatial learning behaved completely differently in virtual environments compared to in real ones, with more than half of the neurons shutting down while in VR. What this means for humans is unclear, but the scientists said it highlighted the need for more research on the long-term effects of VR.”

“According to Marientina Gotsis, director of the Creative Media & Behavioral Health Center at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts . . . VR could have an even bigger impact on the developing brains of children.”

“The brain is very plastic in young ages, and prolonged exposure with improperly fitted devices could incur damage,” she said. “Children also may not understand how to communicate eyestrain and may lack reflexes to remove the devices if they find them uncomfortable.”

See BCPS contract info here: https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/RGA-101-13%20Virtual%20Learning%20Support.pdf

—————–

A sampling of edtech and related BCPS contract spending authorities. If links do not connect,  urls can be copied and pasted:

*Discovery Education:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/ADRH6P463371/$file/092716%20RGA-127-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Faculty%20Professional%20Development%20Streaming%20Content%20and%20Related%20Services.pdf

Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL):

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/A9TSUL6984F7/$file/052416%20MWE-813-14%20Modification%20World%20Languages%20Elementary%20Second%20Language.pdf

Dreambox Learning:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AMQQTE6AD435/$file/061317%20JNI-778-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Mathematics%20Supplemental%20Resources.pdf

Curriculum Associates/iReady:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AMQQSX6AC551/$file/061317%20JMI-618-14%20Modification%20-%20Teaching%20Resource%20for%20English%20Language%20Arts.pdf

Code to the Future:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AAHPAZ6197B4/$file/061416%20MBU-525-16%20Computer%20Science%20Immersion.pdf

APEX Learning:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AGDVC970F7A1/$file/122016%20RGA-128-12%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20Online%20Student%20Courses.pdf 

ScholarChip:

http://10ba4283a7fbcc3461c6-31fb5188b09660555a4c2fcc1bea63d9.r13.cf1.rackcdn.com/03/d6869a0dc672eaa5d41cd8231c707cda.pdf?id=231361

McGraw-Hill:

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/MWE-820-14%20BOARD%20EXHIBIT%2010-22-2013.pdf

Daly Computers/Hewlett-Packard reseller:

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/MWE-807-14_Board_Exhibit_03-11-14.pdf

Superintendent Dallas Dance’s Pricey Travel Log Revealed: Part I

A version of this op-ed by Joanne C. Simpson originally ran in The Towson Flyer,  with various links. More news on top BCPS administrators’ travel costs to come . . .

Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance will be wrapping up his tenure soon after the school year ends, but not before he has charged a litany of travel costs to the district that seem contrary to school system policies and federal guidelines.

Travel records obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request reveal an apparent pattern of overspending on superintendent trips to panels and presentations at education-technology conferences and other events across the United States and East Asia.

The tally for just five of those trips: nearly $11,000 paid for by taxpayers.

Last year, Dance’s presence at the SXSWedu tech conference on March 6-9 in Austin, for example, included a 3-night stay at the 4-star Hilton Austin, at a rate of $328 per night plus taxes, totaling $1,187 in district-covered hotel charges.

The BCPS-reimbursed trip total: $2,360, including a $715 flight from BWI to Austin and a $112 dinner at MAX’s Wine Dive featuring $24 for four seared scallops and a $22 platter of shrimp.

A request for comment by the superintendent or school district officials regarding such expenses was not returned. Dance has previously said his travel to such events are for official school district business.

Yet such expenditures for the superintendent, who recently resigned without explanation one year into his second four-year contract, seem out of line for a system where nearly half of its 112,000 students qualified last year for free or reduced price meals—many living under the federal poverty level of $20,420 for a family of three.

Dance was hired in July 2012 at a yearly salary of $255,000 plus benefits. Last year, his annual salary jumped to $287,800 plus benefits under a new 4-year contract. There could have been some leeway on expense amounts covered; Dance’s initial contract vaguely noted that “reasonable business expenses” would be reimbursed “upon approval of the Board.” Yet few if any travel expenses apparently came before the school board for such review in recent years, officials say. (The superintendent’s mid-2016 contract, signed after an ethics complaint that cited his travel, changed that process going forward to “approval of the Board Chair.”)

Superintendent travel expenditures for various trips also do not align with reimbursement rules for BCPS employees. Under BCPS Rule 3126 in effect by 2016, “pre-approved travel expenses” for employees’ hotel lodging is reimbursed “as compared to federal general services administration [GSA] per diem rates for the appropriate location.” (Meals are “based on actual” GSA per diem, or $59 in March 2016). Dance’s hotel charges for various trips were double or even triple such rates.

The GSA’s per diem rates for hotel lodging in Austin would have allotted him $159 per night instead of the $328 per night that was spent.

Such trips are among 35 or more out-of-state events where Dance spoke mostly about the nearly $300 million BCPS digital initiative known as STAT, or Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow. The superintendent has presented before audiences in Houston; Seattle; Phoenix; San Simeon, Calif.; and Gyeongju in the Republic of Korea, among other cities, records show.

Dance’s travel records for seven trips were requested under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) more than a year ago after questions were raised. The records were made available for nominal photocopy charges in early April, after numerous correspondence and state Public Access Ombudsman mediation. Dance announced his resignation unexpectedly on April 18.

If the bulk of travel was reimbursed by BCPS, at an apparent average up to $2,000 per few-day trip, superintendent expenses since mid-2012 would likely surpass $50,000. Will BCPS release all such travel-related records in the public interest (and waive high fees) to reveal the actual tally?

High taxpayer-funded travel expenses also appear to go far beyond one individual. Nearly $300,000 in BCPS staff travel and related expenses shows up in the budget under “Other Charges,” just within a few offices within the Office of the Superintendent: “Travel, mileage, conferences, professional dues… [FY18 budget] p. 141–178: $281,063,” according to the administration.

Grand total BCPS travel costs, questioned by a few members of the Board of Education, remain unclear. BCPS expenditure databases reveal dozens of jaunts by an employee or employees, not listed by name, to such swanky hotels as SAX Chicago Hotel; the iconic luxe Fontainebleau Hotel in Florida (six 2012 trips: $5,250); and three apparent Las Vegas 5-star casinos and resorts: the “Venetian/Palazzo,” MGM Grand, and Red Rock Casino, Resort and Spa, according to sources familiar with the database.

Such travel costs, STAT, and other district budget items were recently under review by Baltimore County Council members, who voted, with one dissenting vote, to fund the $1.7 billion FY18 schools’ operating budget, including an increase of about $4.5 million mostly to lease $1,400 laptops–and a whopping $10 million additional to be requested from Baltimore County next year, according to BCPS plans. (More than half of Baltimore County tax revenues is spent on public schools).

The county council should reconsider school spending priorities as an interim or new superintendent leads the district, with its many dire needs, which include teacher vacancies, transportation woes, buildings in need of renovation/replacement, and students’ food insecurity. Nearly all “areas of operation” have had funds redirected to STAT, records show. Almost $9 million under “budget realignment” for STAT is slated for next year.

In 2014, amid much fanfare, Dance launched the one-laptop-per-student STAT/digital initiative, whose “total costs” to the district, for the first several years alone, is listed at $257 million, according to BCPS’ updated “Digital Conversion Plan” (see p. 11). Not included in that budget are millions in curricula contracts, professional development, software license fees, and other digital initiative-related costs found elsewhere in the FY18 budget (see left column). The digital price tag would likely surpass $60 million a year. Every year.

From our students’ first keystrokes-and-clicks, STAT has been promoted far and wide. Just two months after laptops were issued in BCPS test schools, the superintendent flew to Korea to speak about STAT, including “Lessons Learned and Pitfalls to Avoid” at the ICT Global Symposium: “Transforming Education with 1:1 Computing,” an event co-sponsored by the World Bank.

Despite administration communications to school board members in spring 2016—in which Dance reported the Korea trip was not “BCPS paid,” according to official sources—the recently released records show BCPS reimbursed Dance’s $1,920 Korean Air flight. Why the discrepancy? Was this trip paid by someone else as well?

And why so many outside conferences? The superintendent “agreed to devote his best efforts and all of his time and attention exclusively to the duties of County Superintendent of the School System,” his contracts show. Dance’s district spending priorities and extensive travel, much of which promotes edtech integration in schools, has seemed severely off base.

Other school leaders or CEOs have run into trouble over travel expenditures, including Fairfax County Public Schools, where charges of $12,000 led to the forced leave and a resignation for two school leaders in March, after a Fox 5 News investigation. And former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison resigned under a cloud in 2014, according to The Charlotte Observer.After a school district review of his travel-related spending, he was forced in 2015 to reimburse nearly $1,300 in costs deemed related to personal consulting.

Morrison, a fellow edtech panelist, is a senior vice president for McGraw-Hill Education, which has a 10-year $15.6 million no-bid contract spending authority with BCPS. By January 2017, fewer than three years into the contract, $8.4 million was already paid out, noted the administration.

Morrison is also a SUPES Academy participant. In February 2015, in a Q & A with SUPES, Dance lauded influential guest speakers during his training in 2011: “There were two: Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Heath Morrison. Both speakers were extremely genuine.” Byrd-Bennett was indicted later in 2015 in a years-long SUPES kickback scheme as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and sentenced a couple weeks ago to more than 4 years in prison.

In the Q & A, Dance—who was cited in 2014 for an ethics code violation related to a SUPES contract with BCPS, and a 2016 finding for failure to file financial disclosure statements for outside income—noted that “humility” was a No. 1 trait for school leaders.

As superintendent, Dance has been viewed as an energetic and forward-thinking leader. And in many ways he is. When he arrived, the district was behind in its technology offerings. Yet the version of tech integration now fostered, especially in elementary schools, has increasingly proven controversial.

A closer look at other trips also reveal that his “rock star” tendencies might have proven too much for our humble school district.

For the 2014 SXSWedu conference, Dance was reimbursed by BCPS for a Hilton Austin rate of $469 per night, plus taxes—nearly quadruple the GSA per diem; at that time BCPS Rule 3126 stipulated reimbursement of “actual hotel lodging expenses.” (SXSW makes Austin a popular destination that time of year, yet Hilton Austin rates for next year’s SWSWedu in March can be booked now for $220 per night, with other reasonable hotels available.)

While some of these charges are not exactly lavish, they aren’t fiscally sensitive either in a cash-strapped school system. And the events prompt other questions.

In July 2015, Dance traveled to San Simeon, Calif., to attend the CUE Super Symposium. The superintendent opened his presentation“Preparing Globally Competitive Graduates,” with “I absolutely love my ‘thought partners’ at Discovery Ed.” (Discovery Education is a BCPS vendor.)

For that talk, Dance was reimbursed by BCPS for a one-night charge of $331 at the oceanside Pelican Inn & Suites in Cambria, Calif. Dance’s air itinerary, including a red-eye flight booked just a couple weeks before, cost a whopping $1,094. Dance has done livestreams or panels from Discovery Ed’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., including a 2014 event to “explore ways to engage critical district stakeholders to support a successful digital conversion.”

Last year, the school board approved an expanded $10 million no-bid contract spending authority for Discovery Education, one of many digital curricula contracts under Rule 6002, which fosters such approval without bids for instructional material.

Some travel costs, reviewed under the public information act, were paid by the conference or its sponsors, such as $342 reimbursed to BCPS by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) for Dance’s flight in 2015. He was a keynote speaker for the “iNACOL Blended and Online Learning Symposium” at the Swan and Dolphin Resort, Walt Disney World in Orlando.

The superintendent and district have earned other awards or honors for tech integration from affiliates of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), as well as EdSurge, Digital Promise (a “Walk the Walk” award), and other organizations sponsored by edtech companies. Such sponsors include million dollar-plus BCPS vendors: Microsoft, Discovery Education, DreamBox Learning, Curriculum Associates (iReady), and Daly Computers (a Hewlett-Packard affiliate awarded the $205 million contract spending authority for the HP EliteBook student devices in 2014).

Still, nearly three years after STAT’s launch, there’s no objective evidence of significant improved learning outcomes for BCPS students, as independent reports show is a trend across the country for online or “blended learning.” And the district’s 2016 PARCC standardized test scores were lower than those of other counties in the region.

Overall, a thorough outside audit of BCPS spending and STAT is needed, and the school board should consider financial priorities in future superintendent contracts and policies. A 2015 Maryland legislative Audit Report strongly recommended that BCPS “amend its existing policies to require competitive procurement methods.” As the appendix noted: “It helps ensure fairness and integrity in the expenditure of public funds.”

In the end, who is really being served by STAT? Consider a few titles for Dance’s various panels: “Educator Pushback: What Do We Need to Understand” and “Is Education Policy Stifling Digital Innovation?”

The real question we need to understand is this: Is digital innovation stifling our children’s education instead?

Joanne C. Simpson is a former staff writer for The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Johns Hopkins Magazine. She is a BCPS parent, college educator, and freelance writer based in Baltimore.

Reprinted with permission from The Towson Flyer.