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

Last in a series of guest op-eds 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.

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 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 in two weeks. 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,


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:


Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL):


Dreambox Learning:


Curriculum Associates/iReady:


Code to the Future:


APEX Learning:






Daly Computers/Hewlett-Packard reseller:


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 school 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 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—which noted 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 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.

What Now for the STAT Digital Initiative? Superintendent Dallas Dance Resigns

Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance’s surprise resignation announcement this week leaves the future of the expensive one-laptop-per-student STAT program, which he spearheaded, in flux. (We are hoping for more balance).

Here are a few of the stories about Dance’s resignation:

CBS News: “Dallas Dance Abruptly Resigns

and ABC News or Baltimore Sun 

Why now? What’s behind the resignation? More updates to follow . . .

An Open Letter to Maryland State Legislators: Digital Device Health & Safety Bill — A Win-Win

An open letter from Joanne C. Simpson, BCPS parent, college educator, freelance journalist, to Maryland State Senators on the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee 3/14/17

Thank you in advance for your time and consideration. Please support proposed Senate Bill 1089: Health and Safety Guidelines and Procedures – Digital Devices.  This is especially important with the vastly increased use of new devices such as tablets, laptops, and smartphones, as well as screen-based learning and testing in schools.

You might have been told recently that not enough is known about health or safety measures in this arena, especially from school board representatives who may not be aware of what is already available. Yet current medical research clearly indicates the need for digital device safety guidelines in schools, and offers actual tips and training.

Medical and professionally informed guidelines would help prevent ergonomic and other long-term fallout: such as computer vision syndrome, neck pain, etc. (see lists and research below). Many of these devices are being used by children as young as 6-years-old in various school districts.

Support for this bill would be a win-win.

A parallel House bill has already gained steam:

“Requiring the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, in consultation with the State Department of Education, to develop health and safety guidelines and procedures for the use of digital devices in public school classrooms; and requiring each county board of education to implement specified health and safety guidelines and procedures for the use of digital devices in public school classrooms beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.”

Maryland, which offers some of the best public school districts in the nation, should be a leader on safe student use of tech in classrooms. Based on in-depth research during the past year, here are a few citations for quick reference. Note especially the school-related work of Karen Jacobs, Clinical Professor, Department of Occupational Therapy at Boston University, one of the primary experts in the field.

For example, one six-year cohort study led by Jacobs, cited* below, concludes: “Participatory ergonomics training and use of external devices may have significant health benefits for children involved in notebook programs who have daily exposure to this technology for school and leisure purposes.”

Some of the issues cited by children using the devices: neck and shoulder pain, back pain, and other musculoskeletal discomforts, as well as “visual symptoms such as dry/watery eyes and sore, tired eyes during the study.

As you are likely aware, Baltimore County Public Schools is pursuing a district-wide digital initiative others expect could be replicated around the state of Maryland. This laptop-per-student program (grades 1-12) has a number of extreme cost burdens — approaching $300 million for the first several years alone — and other problems so far, including declining county PARCC standardized test scores. It’s titled Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, or STAT.

STAT and similar digital initiatives, like those in Montgomery County Public Schools and neighboring Prince George’s County, translate to increased student screen time. Some tech upgrades and digital options in schools are needed, when reasonable and balanced. Safety measures are a digital equity issue as well, because many children in less affluent school districts also have reduced access to appropriate health care screening or mitigation.

You might hear arguments that there’s no evidence of problems, but as you can see that is not true. You might hear pushback about mandates, yet when children are at risk –wrist pain, retinal issues, or behavioral issues related to gaming curricula, etc.– it is our government’s role to serve its people, and to help keep safe the hundreds of thousands of families in Maryland. 

Unfortunately, many school systems are entrenched in digital initiatives and contracts that rely on corporate vendors. As a result, legislators and others might encounter pressure from the education technology industry to halt such bills, as these companies would like to increase student screen time to enable for-profit digital curricula and ongoing embedded assessments or online tests. I have no problem with such companies per se, yet should corporate priorities influence how we oversee the health of the next generation? There needs to be consistent oversight. (School-edtech ties also can prove problematic on a number of levels.)

See this story re: some of those concerns, and possible school leader bias regarding tech.

In terms of overall safety, can much be done? Yes: screen-time guidelines, and limits on per-day usage, are advisable. Ergonomic education for teachers. Frequent breaks. Better posture training. Appropriate lighting. Proper screen height. Supports for neck or forearms. See the in-depth work by advocate Cindy Eckard, as well as researchers from Harvard University, the Curtis National Hand Center, The University of Washington, among others via additional links and quotes below.

Feel free to share this information with fellow legislators and others. Baltimore County Public Schools’ health council offered a few suggestions but has not addressed this issue adequately–which is why we can’t rely on county school systems to do what is appropriate. We also can’t rely on the vagaries of information and medical resources available to various school districts, especially in areas where poverty and equity are challenges. 

The University of Southern California reports that African-American children are most prone to myopia, followed by Asian-Americans, Latinos and Caucasians.

In the end, these parameters and guidelines should also be in place as a reference point for private and parochial schools, as children in these environments should be protected as well.

As the Digital Age progresses, this is a global issue especially for our next generation. Maryland should set a very high standard for the safety of our children.


News Coverage: 

A recent CBS News story on HB866/SB1089


Baltimore County Public Schools’ STAT program costs and related issues:


Studies, Jacobs: 

Jacobs, K., Hudak, S., McGiffert, J. (at press). Computer-related posture and musculoskeletal discomfort in middle school students. WORK.

*Jacobs, K., Kaldenberg, J., Markowitz, J., Wuest, E., Hellman, M., Umez-Eronini, A., Barr, A. (2013). An ergonomics training program for student notebook computer users: Preliminary outcomes of a six-year cohort study. WORK, 221–230.

Jacobs, K., Foley, G., Punnett, L., Hall, V., Gore, R., Brownson, E., Ansong, E., Markowitz, J., McKinnon, M., Steinberg, S., Wuest, E., Dibaccari, L.,  & Ing, A. (2011). University students’ notebook computer use: lessons learned using e-diaries to report musculoskeletal discomfort. Ergonomics, 54:2, 206-21


Note: “Karen Jacobs, a Boston University clinical professor of occupational therapy, has authored several studies on tech ergonomics, with upcoming findings showing that ergonomic education significantly improves neck posture in middle school students using tablets.

Trained occupational therapists already based at some schools can offer guidance, Jacobs said. “Children don’t want to be in pain,” she added, noting that kids — some of whom experience headaches, eye strain or neck discomfort after using tech devices — need frequent breaks and physical movement, not static postures. “It’s really important that our children are doing lots of different things.”

Debra Milek, a University of Washington associate professor in environmental and occupational health sciences, noted that worn-out tendons, neck pain and carpal tunnel syndrome have plagued computer users and store cashiers, and ended the careers of guitarists. “Discomfort may be an early indicator of future injury,” Milek noted, “which is why it’s important to pay attention to how we use these devices.'”


Digital Disabilities 

Jacobs’ peer-reviewed articles with others that might also be related. 


http://blogs.bu.edu/kjacobs/ (Study breaks and other practical tips)

Other research: Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Jack Dennerlein, Professor of Ergonomics and Safety. In 2012, he led a Harvard University study that found that adjusting tablet viewing angle — to as straight ahead as possible — provides relief.


Recent posts and Tweets (contact Cindy Eckard):


Quick List of Medical Concerns to watch for:

  1. Increased, irreversible myopia Because long-term fixed distance viewing is very well known to promote nearsightededness, the pre-teen and teenage developmental precondition for myopia is being exacerbated when middle school kids are required to stare at a computer for excessive periods of time. 10 – 15 year-old children are already prone to myopia; it’s the shape their eyes are taking at this stage in their physical development.
  2. Retinal damage and premature macular degeneration The UV blue light emissions that damage the back of our eyes are better able to penetrate children’s eyes because the kids are not blinking, and because a child’s eye doesn’t have the necessary pigmentation to protect against the blue light. So the child is literally staring into a computer with damaging blue light penetrating right to the back of his eye.
  3. Digital eye strain and musculoskeletal discomforts Experts in children’s health are quick to point out that children are not just small adults. When using digital devices, kids are often unaware of the discomfort they are experiencing and do not correct their posture or take a break when their eyes get dry or blurry.  They suffer more than adults, and don’t do anything about it.
  4. Sleeplessness and its damaging side effects Because so much work is done on a computer at school, most homework and studying also has to take place on a computer in the evening. This is especially problematic for our kids because the blue light from the digital devices suppresses a hormone called melatonin, which is necessary for sleep. Our kids are now being deprived of sleep because of the schools’ constant reliance on computers, which brings a host of additional serious health risks to our children. Some kids are actually being misdiagnosed with ADHD, when the truth is, they’re just exhausted.
  5. Increased propensity for psychological issues The constant use of digital devices is emerging as a psychological problem for many young people whose reliance on virtual experiences is replacing actual interaction with friends and family. Some experts, such as Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, are suggesting that digital devices are not only addictive, but lead to additional problems for young children such as depression, anxiety, pornography use and gambling. UCLA research has shown that children are losing their ability recognize emotional expressions in other people’s faces.

Supporting links for the above list:


Johns Hopkins University’s Mid-Year STAT Evaluation

STAT Year Three Mid-Year Evaluation Presentation

STAT Year Three Mid-Year Evaluation Report

February 16, 2017 Baltimore County Board of Education Curriculum and Instruction Committee meeting at which the evaluation was presented

During the Livestream, BOE Member Ann Miller posted on her Facebook page, BCPS Board Member Ann Miller (NOTE:  LH = Lighthouse, the schools where STAT is piloted):

BCPS Board Member Ann Miller
BCPS Board Member Ann Miller Gilliss: What is explanation for performance changes? A: results are not statistically significant. LH schools were slightly more economically disadvantaged. Learning curve. Not enough data to show but encouraging on PARCC compared to state.
BCPS Board Member Ann Miller
BCPS Board Member Ann Miller Gilliss: should we expect continued growth as we go forward? A: PARCC we are looking at LH schools in Y2. I would expect performance to be still low for new program. These results aren’t saying STAT was effective in achievement, but does say STAT didn’t interfere in achievement in Y2.

Videos: A Tale of Three Policies; Save BCPS Policy 8120 & STAT Conversations; A Side-by-Side Analysis

Two more enlightening videos detailing what’s happening behind the scenes.

The first video illustrates how Board of Education policies are being altered to advance STAT when no one is watching (except for BCPS Chicken Little, that is).

Policy 8120: Purpose, Role and Responsibilities of the Board of Education

BCPS Chicken Little’s second video carries the tagline:

Conversations about Baltimore County Public Schools’ 1:1 “Student-Centered,” “Computer-Centered,” Personalized and Competency-Based Learning Digital Initiative, its associated costs, convinced elected officials, and the always tardy evaluations.

What’s been lost to pay for STAT?  Compare what was said about this at a recent Board of Education meeting and on the national stage at the ASU GSV ed-tech summit.

A related conversation from Discovery Future@Now Conference Panel: http://www.discoveryeducation.com/futurenow2014/roadmap.cfm 

“I build a case: we will either pay for it now or we pay for it later. And what we can do, and school systems do this, is find the money for things we want to find money for. But we have to be, I think the best superintendents are salesman and saleswomen.

But the other thing, too, is that before we ask for additional money — because we know it’s going to cost more — we have to do serious scrubs of our own budgets, so as positions come open, do we need to fill those positions?

But we’ve also been very upfront with our county as it costs additional money, we’re going to be very upfront and honest whether there are positions that we can decrease in the school system that are non-school based.  How do we then redirect our funds? But we’ve been very upfront that it’s going to cost more. But, we have to demonstrate those early wins, those success stories in our 10 Lighthouse Schools to give us the leverage to say that we need to continue this.”