“Not legal,” says state agency regarding Baltimore County schools’ mass record purge

More great work from local journalist Ann Costantino.

nearly 2,700 financial disclosure statements were destroyed over two separate days … The purge occurred one week after the system’s former superintendent, S. Dallas Dance, was sentenced to jail for perjury after providing misleading information on his disclosure forms about money he earned consulting for companies and other school districts.

The article offers this timeline:

In November, Maryland State Senator Jim Brochin urged the state school board to intervene and conduct an immediate audit of the system’s technology contracts. The New York Times published Brochin’s plea.

In December, four Baltimore County school board members requested a state board audit. Later that month, the board members called on legislators to conduct an emergency legislative audit.

In February, all seven Baltimore County Councilmembers requested a 2012-2017 state legislative audit of the district’s no-bid contracts with education technology firms, procurement process and ancillary costs associated with the contracts (e.g., travel, professional development, perks/promotions, and other financial transactions deemed appropriate).

In March, three Baltimore County Councilmembers urged Gov. Larry Hogan to initiate an independent audit of the school system when councilmembers realized an audit still had not been initiated.

On April 20: Former Superintendent Dallas Dance was sentenced to jail for perjury.

On April 27: Baltimore County schools’ law office would purge nearly 2,400 disclosure records that spanned 1997 up through 2014.

In May, the school system hired an audit firm to conduct its own audit. The scope would include years 2012-2017.

In August, 315 more pre-2014 disclosure records would be purged

Read more here.

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Sound Familiar? “Schools across America running up six-figure tabs for hotels, airline costs”

This issue was reported on here quite a while back.  Education conferences are big business.

“The K-12 education conference industry is huge and lucrative.

Just do a Google search on “education conferences” and you will get countless listings for annual events throughout the nation – and sometimes in other countries – that education professionals are strongly encouraged to attend.

The headlines say things like “100 Best Education Conferences to Attend in 2018,” and “2018 Can’t Miss Education Conferences.”

Public schools respond to all the hype and send employees and officials to the events in droves. And the cost to taxpayers is massive, particularly in the form of travel costs.

As part of our latest series titled “School Spending Spree,” EAGnews.org sent public information requests to randomly selected districts throughout the nation, seeking information about tax dollars spent on travel in the 2016-17 fiscal year.

The response we received from many districts was breathtaking.”

Read more here on the EAGNews.org website.

“EAGnews.org is the flagship website of Education Action Group Foundation, Inc., a national organization headquartered in Michigan. EAG is a non-partisan non-profit organization with the goal of promoting sensible education reform and exposing those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.”

Schools emergency funds and retirees’ health care benefits to be tapped to pay for STAT? Updated 5/20

Close-up Of Auditor Inspecting Financial Documents At Desk

A scathing County Auditor’s report on the school district’s laptop-per-student program known as STAT reveals BCPS plans to tap an “unprecedented” level of emergency funds for next year, nearly $32 million. Leaders might also help shore up the controversial digital initiative via a fund for retirees’ health benefits.

There’s a clear fiscal crisis pending it seems—including Baltimore County Public Schools pulling $31.8 million from the district’s fund balance, a year-end surplus also known as an emergency fund. Using such funds at that level, which the report terms “historically high,” highlights the digital initiative’s unsustainability over time.

The proposed 2018-19 budget for BCPS “relies upon the use of an unprecedented level” of BCPS’ “fund balance as a revenue source,” the county Office of the Auditor budget analysis notes. “Such a fund balance, by the school system’s own projections, will not be available at a similar magnitude in future years.” (See details footnote 1 below, and link to report here.)

Under STAT, as continued by current Interim Superintendent Verletta White, there will be ongoing four-year turnover of laptop leases–massive spending now approaching $300 million for the program’s first several years alone (The 2014 $205 million laptop contract–more than $110 million of which has been spent so far and counting with current leases, according to school officials. Another contract “refresh” for a separate $140 million was recently awarded to the same bidder Daly Computers/HP this spring, plus $17 million in additional 4-year contracts for tech services (see footnote 2).

Such staggering amounts far outpace other school districts nationwide and do not include the many software curricula, tech infrastructure, and related costs for tens of millions more annually. And BCPS’ one-to-one juggernaut is expanding, despite such 1:1 programs’ ongoing financial woes and lukewarm student outcomes. See recent PCWorld’s “Who Needs Computers in the Classroom? Not Students: The money is better spent on sincere and hardworking teachers.”

An outside audit, based on widening local and state concern over such costs and contracts, finally went up for a vote, and was approved by the school board.

Compare such pay outs to another startling BCPS figure that belies claims that tech is not replacing teachers: The district has 388 positions “vacant as of April 15, 2018,” mostly instructional and transportation jobs. This number has trended high, nearly triple the amount of unfilled jobs in 2012, when former superintendent Dallas Dance was hired, and planning for the digital initiative began (for details, see p. 14, auditor budget analysis). Are positions being left open to pay for STAT?

In addition, the County Office of the Auditor pointed out that the county’s proposed FY 2019 budget for BCPS totals $1.7 billion, with a general fund increase of $28.3 million including “new funding for the S.T.A.T. program, and funding for curriculum materials. These increases are significantly offset by the elimination of retiree healthcare funding, which totaled $25 million in FY 2018.

It’s unclear what that “elimination” means, though it apparently does not mean that employee or retiree health care benefits have been cut entirely, or that coverage won’t be available to future retirees (benefits, however, have been trimmed back previously, as a percentage of health costs covered etc., according to county documents). Recent discussion among county and school officials instead described a “budget appropriation transfer” from the retirees’ fund reserve, apparently to be used to pay for STAT and other expenditures. This raises questions re: possible raiding of the fund now and over time. Will there be an ongoing countywide tapping of underfunded retirement and outside-pension employee benefits (OPEB) monies?

Update: While the fund does include substantial assets, a recent county “Spending Affordability Committee” report noted concern about “policy decisions that have put at risk future retirement health care benefits for the County’s current employees and retirees, as well as saddled the County with long-term commitments that are unaffordable under the current revenue structure.” Will update as details become available.

The County Office of the Auditor’s budget analyses inform the council and county leadership, who then determine appropriate funding for county departments, including schools. A budget work session was held in council chambers in Towson on May 17, in which BCPS cited misleading score claims and related. Previously, the three Republican county council members (Wade Kach, David Marks, and Todd Crandall) voted to strip $14 million from the schools’ STAT program, but were outvoted by Democrats on the council.

Spending priorities also seem way out of line. The county administration has mostly allowed multi-million dollar increases for STAT, yet for the proposed budget for next year: School safety measures — “one-time maintenance funds of $644,800 were requested to update software operating the card door access control system which provides security to all schools; however, the County Executive did not fund this request,” the report notes (footnote 3).

Laptops in high schools certainly make more sense, but the latest $140 mill round to HP/Daly Computers created yet another scandal, still costing twice an industry standard and well above other Maryland counties. Such expenditures top ongoing questionable in-development education software being tested on district children, totaling more than $60 million in no-bid contracts yet to be audited. For example, $10 million alone to Discovery Education in a no-bid contract for online “techbooks” and related.

Baltimore County Council members, executive leadership, and state representatives should review this analysis closely and judiciously. The report also offers options to “slow the rapid proposed growth in BCPS spending,” i.e. burdensome laptop costs, and possibly provide devices in elementary schools on carts (as most digital districts pursue) not assigned 1:1 in lower grades. Such moves would save $14 million or more next year, and avoid a scenario that seems to be threatening state Maintenance of Effort (MOE) requirements, a state formula for school funding. Approval “as is” might also lock the county in to higher taxpayer-funded contributions for years to come.

As the auditor’s budget analysis stated: “it is important to note that committing ongoing funds above the MOE level represents a binding funding commitment. Once the Council appropriates such funds, the County is unable to “pull back” its spending authorization on a per-pupil basis – in the upcoming fiscal year or in future fiscal years.”

Additional update**: The Maryland State Board of Education (MSDE), in an apparently unusual move, refused a schools’ exemption request for $4 million in added curricula to be categorized as a “one-time” cost the state would cover; (most of the digital curriculum is set by multi-year contracts, and thus is not necessarily one-time). This could send additional funding commitments back to the county or schools, causing the BCPS budget to soar to nearly $30 million over the state’s MOE requirement. The district has appealed the decision (see footnote 4).

This $4 million and other curriculum contracts also run contrary to previous promises that digital curricula would only cost $1 million annually. In a KQED story in 2014, digital director Ryan Imbriale said BCPS would “move its entire curriculum online and make it available to teachers and students. He estimates that the district will spend more than $1 million a year on digital resources for its 108,376 students.” (BCPS One, also mentioned in the story, adds another $2.5 million or so annually in software/platform fees and related to several vendors, school records show. Now Schoology, Inc. will apparently be contracted for more than $3 million over five years, replacing one of those vendors, Engrade, which the district says was paid out $3.4 million by early January this year. (see footnote 5).

Among other elements to review, excerpts from the Office of the Auditor schools budget analysis for 2018-19 include:

“S.T.A.T. Program Funding (3505-0415)
A number of options exist for scaling back S.T.A.T program funding. This analysis identifies two such options. Each option would reduce the appropriation to Education’s “Other Instructional Costs” Program (3505), which does not include any salary costs.

Option A: Reduce S.T.A.T. funding above MOE, suggesting that the Board concentrate funding at the middle school level and provide loaner devices to interested high school students ($25 million conservative projection)….

Option B: Reduce S.T.A.T. funding by cost of new lease, suggesting that the Board consider a revised implementation for grades 6-12 rather than grades 1-12 ($14 million).….

Lastly, among other costs/school needs to be covered, “BCPS should be prepared to discuss, including:

  • · Multi-year plans to increase the number of guidance counselors, social workers, pupil personnel workers, and psychologists;
  • · Specific details on the roles of the School Climate Core School-Based Support Teams;

Overall, after years of leadership controversy at the county public schools, it seems rather clear that fiscal professionals in-the-know understand that the costs and 1st-12th grade implementation of this laptop-per-student program are unsustainable. School and county leaders need to look out for schools that have numerous other unmet needs: 388 unfilled positions, a bulk of those instructional roles; current teachers who must pay money out of their own pockets for classroom supplies; principals facing slashed school discretionary budgets; students in need of staff support; and taxpayers who are footing the bill for an apparently ill-thought-out corporate-backed tech initiative in county schools.

See also “Priorities in a School System Where Nearly Half of Students Live in Poverty.”

See new updates, including another tug-of-war between Maryland school officials and county schools over funding issues–an apparent state school board refusal to okay $4 million in ongoing curricula as a covered one-time expense. Oh, and 388 unfilled positions. See also, copy of full report linked below. 

Postscript 5/18:

The future projections for county and school retirees’ health care benefits remains unclear. No one has yet explained the “elimination” of $25 mill, and other cuts or “budget appropriation transfers.” Though it does not appear to be an elimination of retiree health care benefits, questions should be answered:

What is the story? Where is the $25 mill coming from and what exactly is being eliminated? Was there some kind of one-time surplus or “budget appropriation transfer to move money” to STAT under a line item known as “instructional costs.” Overall, why isn’t any and all surplus/reserve then going back into the retirement benefits fund to make sure it is highly-funded?

This might be an overall county issue: BCPS “participates in the Baltimore County government self-insured program for employee and retiree health, dental, and vision care,” as the school budget notes. Yet the $25 million cited? If transferred, could this be just utilizing another fund, or–with rules governing employees’ and retirees’ benefits–a misappropriation of funds? Is BCPS contributing to the fund per employee, and if so enough? And lastly, the employee pension fund in Baltimore County seems a tempting revenue source. Are county taxpayers facing a long-deferred tax hike, or a government pension debacle that might come back to haunt the county and school district in a market downturn–or longterm?

Stakeholders should ask school board members to clarify this issue as well as cuts to services, and overall siphoning off of money from “all areas of operations” for STAT, including school discretionary budgets and numerous important areas of need all around.

For more info on increased funding for STAT, see also p. 93 of the 2018-19 BCPS proposed budget: “Contracted services increase 21.2% primarily due to the increased leasing costs associated with final year of implementation of the S.T.A.T. program, providing one to one devices for students; providing audio visual upgrades,” etcetera, etcetera.

Footnotes 5/20:

1. The “fund balance, by the school system’s own projections, will not be available at a similar magnitude in future years (see page 83 of the FY 2019 Board Proposed Operating Budget).” Some of that money was cached for STAT’s wider rollout, but BCPS’ own projections show that not enough surplus will be available regardless. “The proposed budget relies on the use of approximately $31.8 million of BCPS’s fund balance, which BCPS projects will total $29.7 million at the end of FY 2018 and $17.0 million at the end of FY 2019.”

2. Re: maintenance, vendors are apparently tackling all of the district’s tech at the same time?: “BCPS issued an RFP for contractors to provide skilled network support and maintenance technicians for the Department of Information Technology. On May 8, 2018, the Board of Education approved the four-year, 1-month $17.3 million contract with 27 vendors for the support and maintenance of the technology hardware and network used in schools and offices, including the digital devices.”

3. See pages 18 and 19 of the county auditor’s budget analysis to see what specific costs were not funded by the county, and elsewhere to see what was expanded, such as ESOL services.

4. Regarding the maintenance of effort (MOE) formulas the state uses to determine funding to schools. This is pretty complicated (again, see budget analysis itself), but the nitty gritty is here:

“The proposed budget exceeds the State’s MOE requirement by $29.8 million, which would increase the County’s MOE requirement by $273 per student for FY 2020. (On May 4, 2018, the County’s Office of Budget and Finance advised that it submitted an appeal to MSDE to reconsider its decision to disapprove $4 million in one-time curriculum costs as an exclusion to MOE; should MSDE reverse its decision, BCPS’s budget would exceed MOE by $25.8 million).”

“As of May 16, 2018, Baltimore County’s proposed FY 2019 General Fund budget exceeds the Spending Affordability Committee’s spending guideline by approximately $4 million due to MSDE’s disapproval of an MOE exclusion request by the County; an appeal of this disapproval is pending (should MSDE not reverse its decision, the proposed budget would be $29.8 million above MOE).”

5. Re: Schoology, BCPS contract records note: “This is a new contract to provide a learning environment to host student performance, grades, curriculum, content, assessments, professional development and communication tools for staff, students, parents and the community. Approval is requested for a five (5) year contract with one (1) recommended bidder and contract spending authority of $3,037,620. The Learning Management System (LMS) is a learning environment used by BCPS staff, educators, students, and parents in the teaching and learning process. LMS supports an interconnected system of curriculum, content, assessment, and communication tools. This contract will replace contract JNI-749-13 [Engrade] which will expire on October 1, 2018. The average annual expenditures on contract JNI-749-13 were $691,000 and total contract expenditures are $3,455,302,” according to BCPS records on the Schoology contract up for approval in early January. So, that would make a likely total of more than $7 million for what is essentially an online grading book with teacher contact info? 

For additional background info: Apparently the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which had a troubled tablet program, approved only a one-year contract at first to see how it went. BCPS has tried out and paid out to several vendors for BCPS, including the problematic Safari Montage, with another multi-million dollar contract.

 

Board of Education Approves $140-million HP Device Contract

At its April 3 meeting, the Baltimore County Board of Education approved the contract to lease and refresh 133,000 new HP devices for students, teachers, and staff.  The BOE was supposed to have voted on the contract at its March 20 meeting, which was canceled due to inclement weather.

In spite of warnings posted here about overspending

and published here about efficacy and opportunity costs,

the contract was approved, which means BCPS is locked in to another 7 years of S.T.A.T.  The fact that a major vote was taken knowing that the person who brought the program to BCPS, Dr. Dallas Dance, will soon serve jail time, and that, based on this, legislators have agreed that an audit of ed-tech-related contracts is warranted, makes it all the more unbelievable that this took place.

March 6 BOE Meeting Device Q&A

JMI-604-18 HARDWARE, SOFTWARE AND SERVICES TO PROVIDE A ONE-TO- ONE DEVICE PROGRAM FOR STUDENTS AND STAFF

  1. $140,000,000
  2. 133,000 devices rolled out over 4 years for 7-year total contract (14″ HP Elitebook X360 1030 G2 for teachers and staff members, $1,549; 11″ HP ProBook X360 11 G2 EE for students, $906)

Original Contract (MWE-807-14): 7 years (through 6/30/21) with 13-year extension, estimated contract authority: $205,000,000 = $29,285,714/year

Another Questionable No-bid Contract

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

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

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

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

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

Read more here.

We Trusted . . .

A guest Op-Ed by Bronwyn Mitchell-Strong

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have the power, and we have the vote.

Related:  Dance’s breach of trust

BCPS Tech Contracts Audit Update

Baltimore Sun, December 16:  White expands the audit of school board contracts

Baltimore Post, December 15:  Legislative Audit Sought for Baltimore County Schools’ Contracts (the need for an audit was noted in May ~ Is BCPS in Need of a Financial Audit?)

Baltimore Sun, December 6:  Audit of tech contracts in Baltimore County schools is sought

Towson Flyer, December 5:  Board of Ed members ask for BCPS contract audit