BCPS FY21 Proposed Operating Budget: Reduced Device Costs, More Textbooks, More People

At the January 9, 2020 Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Dr. Williams offered a presentation on his proposed FY 2021 Operating Budget.  While the student-to-device ratio doesn’t change (it’s still 1:1 in Grades 3 through 12, but lower in K through Grade 2), at least device costs will go down by moving to much less expensive Chromebooks in BCPS middle schools as has been done for elementary schools. Shockingly, the original HP device lease contract had each laptop hybrid costing close to $1,400 each (figuring in all costs). The proposed FY21 budget’s call for purchasing more textbooks is also welcome news.

The budget also recognizes that students in a county with increasing diversity, needs, and poverty (44% FARMS – 166% increase in ESOL students in the past 10 years – students from 113 countries – 107 languages spoken – high mobility – 82% increase in homeless students in the past 10 years – 17% increase in Special Ed students in the past 5 years) need PEOPLE in the classroom and schoolhouse to support them. Unlike budgets of the past, Dr. Williams’ budget asks for hiring more teachers, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses, and other support staff, and increasing supports for Title I schools, ESOL, and Special Ed.

A long way to go, but on the right path.

At start of school year, 5 things to know about Dr. Williams, including his position on devices

Last month,  the Baltimore Sun published an editorial, “Five things Baltimore County should know about new Superintendent Darryl Williams. #4 on the list was his position on devices in BCPS schools:

4. Laptops for every student? Maybe, maybe not. This might have been the biggest surprise of the conversation. Providing personal computers to every student in the system (a controversial policy already abandoned in the early grade school years) has been one of the most heated recent debates in the county schools. Many parents, and certain school board members, are quite antagonistic toward the practice, but if anyone thought the board was hiring an anti-laptop superintendent, think again. Chalk him up as undecided. Mr. Williams says he sees the value in providing laptops to students who don’t otherwise have access to one. But in the end, it’s just a tool. Is it better to spend money on such devices or on teacher training and support? That’s a question he says he’ll be pondering.

Read the entire editorial here.

No Bids, No Signed Contracts, Scarce Selection Docs: Audit report reveals unsound digital curricula payouts at BCPS

Image result for free photos huh?

UPDATED: Not solid, nor sound. A long-awaited external audit of Baltimore County Public Schools has noted limited findings on the timing of employee financial disclosure filings, with procurement practices touted by the school administration as “fiscally solid.” Yet the 200-plus page auditors’ report clearly does not support district claims of “sound procurement” overall.

The report lists a mess of criticisms over wanton employee travel spending far above school policy; a lack of district oversight of procurement card transactions; unsubstantiated piggyback contracts; and a litany of multimillion dollar curricula spending with no signed contracts and very little documentation on why the vendors were selected — curricula increasingly supplied by edtech companies that sponsor conferences and serve on panels widely attended by BCPS administrators. A clean bill of health this is not. Are we being “Barred?” 

UPDATE: For a stellar deep analysis of the audit, including rampant travel-related and BCPS document purge issues, see this new Baltimore Post article by investigative reporter Ann Costantino.

In terms of problematic high-dollar spending, a primary concern flagged by auditors in “observations” include: Curriculum & Instruction, the department that Verletta White oversaw as Chief Academic Officer during the scope of the audit. White now has oversight as interim superintendent. Among other concerns in the audit, on p. 26-27:Written contracts, including acceptance of standard terms and conditions, are a critical component of risk management. There is no written contract for curriculum purchases” for several curricula contracts reviewed, including “Mathematics Supplemental Resources,” known as DreamBox.

BCPS payouts to DreamBox, a much-criticized math platform, mushroomed from $635,000 in 2014, soon after former Superintendent Dallas Dance launched the laptop program, to double that by 2016, and hitting $3.2 million barely a year later in 2017. (See audit appendix here). This is the company that Dance, later convicted of perjury, met with as part of his paid affiliation with the controversial Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI), according to The New York Times. And White — whose consulting with ERDI led to an ethics violation —  pressed hard for the nearly $2 million increase in Summer 2017, when she took the helm, asking the Board of Education to approve the expanded contract spending authority. Expenditures on DreamBox are among ongoing tens of millions in no-bid curricula contract spending authorities with ERDI clients.

Again, with “no written contract for curriculum purchases?”

Also noted for the awarding of multimillion dollar curricula deals: “Very little pre-procurement activity documentation is maintained for curriculum purchases.” These procedures do not follow BCPS’ established business practices, the audit noted, and are not aligned with “traditional procurement best practices.” This criticism applied specifically to six curricula deals — a third of the 18 various contract spending authorities reviewed by auditors. Related documents can be found at BCPS here.

A note to county and state officials and school board members — while a limited finding related to any violations of state laws so far is welcome — please do not allow the spinning of the post-audit message to foster continued multi-million dollar no-bid curricula contracts, with little to no track record on how selected or tracking of products or services, and few if any contracts actually signed. (!) A focused Phase 2 audit, as recommended previously and set to go before the board for approval, is clearly needed.

Some fixes are being pursued by the district, including more oversight of unauthorized spending with procurement “credit cards,” or P-Cards, p. 30-33 (why that issue wasn’t found in the 33 routine audits White cites is clearly a concern. With those 33 audits, seems much of this would have been corrected previously). Overnight travel will now be pre-approved, White said in a video. Good thing: The audit found that nearly all employees were spending up to three times the federal General Services Administration rate, which BCPS policy follows. On p. 34 of the audit:

Does the hotel rate exceed the GSA rate in effect for the geographic location in which the hotel stays occurred? Yes, 91.9 percent. No, 8.1 percent.” That included a $559 night stay just down the road in Washington, DCtriple the rate at that time. Fiscal responsibility, anyone?

The issue of piggybacked “cooperative contracts” also reveal questionable selection processes, including a lack of documented rationale for avoiding bids or linking the two contracts. The audit (p. 28) notes that BCPS has “not established a procedure to document the consideration of pre-procurement and contractual details of the underlying piggybacked contract. BCPS may not be able to demonstrate its compliance with Annotated Code of Maryland Section 5.112.” BCPS says it will maintain better documentation. (Again, if this brushes up against state law, what were all those national “procurement awards” for, anyway?)

BCPS’ “management” response to the curricula spending issue in the BCPS-hired audit is particularly vague and insufficient: “Management agrees that the maintenance of documentation will assist in demonstrating compliance with Policy and Rule 6002,” the rule BCPS cites when allowing numerous no bid-contracts for curricula.

This is not about who becomes the next permanent superintendent. Yet there is an ongoing problem at BCPS: Vague and sometimes unfulfilled district leadership promises or even pushback following Maryland Office of Legislative Audits reports, which cited the continuing BCPS practice of allowing no-bid or single-source contracts, despite concerns about a need for “fairness and integrity.”

Maryland legislative auditors in 2015 (and previously) recommended that BCPS seek bids for any contracts higher than $25,000, as aligning to BCPS policy overall. 

In that 2015 report, conducted prior to the laptop program, BCPS officials defended various procedures to not seek bids for numerous services and contracts, saying their procedures were compliant with the law. The State OLA found a need to respond with a strong follow-up “Auditors comment” — see full citation and link below.

“A comprehensive procurement policy requiring competitive procurements for all types of purchases is a recognized best practice and it helps ensure fairness and integrity in the expenditure of public funds,” the report stated.

“Other Maryland school systems have established comprehensive policies, including competitive procurement requirements for service contracts. BCPS’ apparent reluctance to establish a policy requiring competitive procurement for all service contracts is perplexing given that its procurement manual already requires it to obtain price quotes for lower cost services (that is, services valued at less than $25,000).

OLA Audit: https://www.ola.state.md.us/Reports/Schools/BCPS15.pdf

Thomas J. Barnickel III, CPA, Legislative Auditor: p. 33-35

**Procurement Reform letter and report.

http://procurement-reform.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/MD-BCPS-Audit-July-2015-excerpt.pdf

See addendum, p. 33-35:

“Analysis

“BCPS had not established a comprehensive procurement policy that requires competitive procurement of certain services or documentation of justifications for not using competitive procurements.”

Recommendation 3
We recommend that BCPS amend its existing policies to require competitive procurement methods to be used for all contracts for services. 

(Side note: this response, in which BCPS refuses to follow the OLA’s recommendations). 

  1. Response 3
    BCPS complies with all applicable state, federal, and local statutes. State law is silent as to the purchase of services valued at $25,000 or more and BCPS’ Policy 3210, Purchasing Guidelines, Section VI., provides that BCPS shall have the option to issue bids, requests for proposals, or solicit price quotations for any requirements that do not require formal bids. BCPS’ Rule 3210, Purchasing Guidelines, Section V., provides for the establishment of procedures for informal bids, RFPs, and price quotations and these are incorporated in Purchasing Procedure 3210.006.

Auditor’s Comment:
Our report finding did not indicate non-compliance with State statutes by BCPS, but questioned the lack of a policy requiring the use of a competitive procurement process for all service contracts. A comprehensive procurement policy requiring competitive procurements for all types of purchases is a recognized best practice and it helps ensure fairness and integrity in the expenditure of public funds. Other Maryland school systems have established comprehensive policies, including competitive procurement requirements for service contracts. BCPS’ apparent reluctance to establish a policy requiring competitive procurement for all service contracts is perplexing given that its procurement manual already requires it to obtain price quotes for lower cost services (that is, services valued at less than $25,000).”

____________________

Howard County and other Maryland entities have been criticized for no-bid or piggyback contracts as well. 

Howard County, for example, was cited for no-bid contracts. Also note this related state audit on spending on unused/misused tech by a government agency. “Legislative auditors say Maryland’s Department of Human Services mishandled state contracts and unnecessarily spent nearly $5 million — sometimes without getting anything in return,” the Sun noted. The 2017 audit “found the agency’s handling of a huge IT project “resulted in DHS paying approximately $4 million more than necessary for one project that was ultimately cancelled.”

Sounds familiar for ScholarChip ID, the failed lanyard ID program, where about $4 million in public tax dollars has been spent, though the unwieldy student IDs were dropped, attendance kiosks sent back, and software glitchy. The services overall,  “ultimately cancelled?” For more on overall STAT spending and ScholarChip woes, see this summary.

_____________________

And lastly, in an especially odd twist, some of the school board members were cited for filing financial disclosure forms “late,” several months prior to actually assuming office. BCPS reported only an April 30 deadline date. Board Vice Chair Julie Henn noted in a post on her public Facebook page: “Before I even applied for appointment to the Board, my 2015 financial disclosure (which was not required prior to appointment) was five months late and was flagged as such.”

— JCS

Schools Laptop Program Was Never Financially Feasible, reports indicate

  • finances, people, savings and bankruptcy concept - close up of male hand holding burning dollar cash money over black background

The Baltimore County Public Schools budget is facing a money crunch and growing controversy after the county executive warned of an $81 million shortfall in the county budget next year. Yet this crisis has been a long time coming for the 25th largest school district in the nation, which nonetheless has been requesting an 11.5 percent increase — or a whopping $91 million more — in taxpayer dollars.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun and in various statements, said he has a “responsibility to craft a balanced budget for the county,” noting that the schools’ proposed budget “is not fiscally sustainable.”

He’s right. Yet how did this all happen?

In large part, the culprit is wanton spending on the laptop-per-student program known as STAT, which a review of records indicates was never financially sustainable long-term. When the program was launched in 2014 by now-disgraced Superintendent Dallas Dance, promises of a “21st Century” transformation in learning were made here in Baltimore County and across the country. Five years and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars later, the program has expanded despite poor student test results and other flagging outcomes. After much debate (see postscripts), the board recently approved a controversial revised proposed budget to send to the county that still includes massive funding for STAT. How exactly did we get here?

Various analyses since 2016 by the Baltimore County Office of the Auditor — as well as BCPS budgets, and other school system records — indicate that the early years of the STAT rollout were partly propped up because the budget was apparently padded with unused funds built up over a few years, since Dance first arrived in July 2012, though he said little to nothing about a digital conversion at that time.

That included insufficiently funding textbooks, transportation support, and special education departments for starters, records show. Such “under appropriation” was criticized by county auditors. One concern then: Why would BCPS keep coming back to the county to ask for tens of millions more than it was actually spending? Numerous BCPS redirects from “all areas of operation,” and tens of millions in emergency funds were also siphoned off as recently as last year to pay for the experimental, edtech industry-oriented initiative, records show. (In the 2018-19 budget, for example, BCPS relied on “the use of an unprecedented level” of the district’s emergency or “fund balance as a revenue source” for STAT and other costs. “Such a fund balance, by the school system’s own projections, will not be available at a similar magnitude in future years,” a May 2018 county auditors’ report noted.

Now, among other issues, the padding and raiding have apparently run their courses and a possible “fake feasibility” seems evident.  The school administration under Dance and Interim Superintendent Verletta White — also a digital education supporter affiliated with numerous outside ed-tech industry groups and consulting firms (see links below) — expected Baltimore County to greatly expand and commit its support of the laptop program right about now, according to STAT planning documents, administration statements, and the BCPS Digital Conversion/STAT budget. (See Towson Flyer op-ed on STAT costs, with link to the actual conversion budget within, details in postscript 1 below).

The bottom line seems to be: The BCPS administration has spent beyond its means, gambling that the county would pick up a higher tab for the digital initiative once the money started running out — and opportunity costs became clearly unsustainable for teachers, students, and a public school district with so many dire needs — sparking recent protests

Auditors’ Alerts

As far back as 2016 (summary and link to report here), county auditors noted that spending on STAT had risen, “while funding for instructional [salaries] has remained relatively flat, and funding for the Instructional Textbooks & Supplies program has declined.” Such materials and supplies have been “pinched,” the report noted.

The auditors’ analysis released in May 2016 questioned a budget gap averaging $20 million a year between what BCPS requested and what was spent. (That number is far more than annual trims to textbooks, which the district claimed the devices were supposed to replace). For several areas outlined in pages 7-12 of that analysis, the auditors noted: BCPS’s “budget document does not align to its actual spending patterns in recent years.” 

For example, a chart under Mid-Level Administration “professional services” revealed that an average $900,000 was requested by BCPS in fiscal years 2013, 2014 and 2015—yet no money was spent in that category. Similar amounts were nonetheless requested by district administrators year to year.

Meanwhile, annual requests for “operational supplies” related to textbooks topped $14 million annually in those years. Yet the actual amounts spent only averaged $700,000. In FY 2015, only 3.5 percent was spent in that category, with nearly $13 million left over, the auditors’ analysis revealed.

Money not spent meant services not rendered. A similar “under appropriation” showed up in Special Education programs, where BCPS requested a very specific $367,404 in FY 2015 for student transportation “professional services.” Yet only $15,000 was spent. That “consistent” pattern, as noted by auditors, applied to previous years as well.

Today, that money has apparently been long spent out, and there’s nowhere else to squeeze, especially as constituents ask for funding for many other needs, some previously slashed, including: counselors, per-pupil student workers, transportation funds, special education needs, breakfasts for needy students, school discretionary expenses, support for a growing population of English-as-a-second-language students, promised teacher raises, staffing levels, security personnel and measures, and on and on. These are true needs, with only so much money in the pot. Is that what the digital conversion playbook counted on to pressure expanded funding? The larger question: Should county taxes be increased to shore up the troubled and costly laptop and digital curricula program? If any tax rates are raised, that funding should go to building new schools to replace long-dilapidated Lansdowne, Towson, and Dulaney High Schools, among others. 

In his op-ed, County Executive Olszewski noted realities for trimming the schools’ budget: “There are such opportunities. One example: The proposed budget for BCPS administration is more than $56 million, reflecting a 53 percent increase from what we spent on administration just seven years ago. In just a few years, we’ve also spent nearly $300 million to provide devices to students in every school as part of the STAT initiative, including the accompanying infrastructure, software and support personnel costs. Considering our front-line needs, it’s time that we re-allocate some of these resources where they are needed most: the people delivering classroom instruction.”

The Eighth Conversion of STAT: The Budget

A recent article in the Baltimore Post pointed out records that showed the schools’ “budget was an integral part of the laptop initiative. In order for the transformation to be successful, Dance said eight internal school “conversions” would have to align to STAT’s goal. Those eight conversions: curriculum, instruction, assessment, professional development, infrastructure, policy, communications and budget.”

According to a transcript from an edtech conference panel — led by Dance, who was later convicted of perjury, and fellow administrator White, who was later cited for ethics violations related to outside consulting for the Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI) — “Dance said he slashed school system programs in order to free up system funds for the STAT program,” noted the Post. “That money, he said, came from cutting 300 of 500 programs from the school system.”

The 2016 panel recording reveals Dance discussing how to pressure elected officials for money. “At the end of the day, then we were able to go to our funding authorities and — my budget comes entirely from the state and from the county — and we were able to go to them and say: ‘this is what we want to do — but this is what we have done internally to redirect funds in order to pay for it (STAT)  — and this is ultimately what it will cost if you were to commit to doing this with us.

The STAT program has cost well over $300 million in the first several years — including laptops, wifi infrastructure, digital curricula, personnel costs, edtech conference travel, and various expenditures that could create a perpetual burden for the county. Records show such digital initiative costs are sometimes tucked, or hidden, into the annual school budgets as “resources,” “other resources,” “textbooks,” “supplies,” “services,” “contracted services,” or simply “Other.”

Over time, some members of the Board of Education past and present have questioned the spending on STAT and pressed for scaling back the rollout or otherwise pulling back the ratios of laptops per students in the elementary grades, among other revisions to address rising costs. (Laptops are now to be two-per-student in grades 1 and 2 starting next year, though White had also alarmingly pressed for more devices in kindergarten–at an apparent price tag of more than $4 million. See Postscript 2). Previous school board member Michael Collins made a prescient statement in a January 2016 board meeting: “I believe very strongly in technology in schools, but we don’t know how this is all working out. At all. And the info we are getting from the data so far is not good. We are just going awfully fast, and we are going to be spending a couple of billion dollars — that’s with a B — at least on this program.” See other details regarding costs here.

Transparency and fiscal responsibility is indeed needed.

This summary is merely a glimpse and the specifics might change. That’s why county auditor reports, past and current schools’ budgets, a pending outside audit, and other fiscal documents must be fully reviewed by the county and state (and outside media), since taxpayers would continually be on the line for such “forever costs.” The county auditors’ analyses of BCPS budgets, for example, revealed similar problems and concerns when released in May 2017 and in 2018, when questions regarding underfunded retiree health benefits and a pending fiscal crisis were first raised publicly. An Office of the Auditor analysis of the FY2020 schools’ budget is expected to be prepared for the county council and administration this upcoming May. Be on the lookout.

Technology options are needed in schools, but not at the price of irresponsible misspending of public dollars and possible malfeasance.

Concerning Conflicts : Updated

One increasingly relevant concern: Interim Superintendent Verletta White, a highly experienced educator and leader, has nonetheless fostered ongoing affiliations with digital education industry groups, a “professional consultancy firm,” as well as  digital curricula and related efforts despite past controversies over outside consulting. Dance had a similar litany of controversial edtech ties. In the end, one needs to wonder whether such loyalties reside more with these edtech groups and ideals than they should. 

Where is objectivity on the costly STAT laptop-per-student and digital curricula program when, according to White’s CV (see link here), the bulk of the interim superintendent’s outside affiliations have been with such edtech proponents?

AFFILIATIONS: Center for Digital Education Advisory Committee; Digital Education Chief Academic Officer Advisory Council; Education Research and Development Advisory Council (ERDI?, which advises companies doing business with BCPS and was related to White’s ethics violations. The interim superintendent has also alarmingly failed to publicly disclose which companies she consulted with on ERDI panels and related.) There’s also her stated affiliation with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

White has additionally served as an advocate for digital curricula and related as a member of the Association of School Curriculum & Development and Maryland Association of School Curriculum and Development. Even more concerning are her advisory roles, as cited in her CV, for outside tech-oriented groups or companies, including the RTM K-12 National Advisory Committee, part of “RTM Business Group, a professional consultancy firm.” 

After an ethics violation finding last year, White said she “made an honest mistake,” and that she was under the impression that she was “‘only to list companies [on disclosure forms] with whom the school system had a contract or a pending contract.’ She has amended her financial disclosure reports to the school system and says she will not accept outside work in the future,” according to a 2018 article in the Sun.

Are any of these outside “affiliations” paid roles? Does White receive any in-kind gifts, meals, items, or covered hotel or travel costs? Do these entities also represent or are sponsored by any BCPS vendors or others doing business with the Board of Education and/or BCPS? And, is White then using her “prestige of office” for private gain, which was cited in her previous ethics violation?

This all raises questions of possible conflicts of interest regarding the continuing high-dollar digital initiative at BCPS. Under good governing standards, the appearance of a conflict of interest should be avoided, see also the district’s Code of Ethics. If one wonders how that might play out, consider BCPS’ Passport/Spanish language program, which White recently defended against any budget cuts by the board, despite high costs (more than $7 million and counting) and troubled results and controversy. White touts an award from Fuel Education on her CV; Yet Fuel Education sells the digital platform, MIL, or Middlebury Interactive Languages. MIL/Middlebury has long been an ERDI client. The company has a $7.5 million contract spending authority with BCPS).

In the end, the previously unreported affiliations with RTM and other positions, and high-dollar contracts like MIL, at the least bear closer scrutiny. Consider RTM’s Blueprint, “the sole property of RTM Business Group, LLC and the authors of the RTM K12 Advisory Board.” Among the blueprint’s priorities: “The Marriage between Academics and Technology: A Blueprint for Creating Powerful Partnerships.”

An opinion column by Joanne C. Simpson, a BCPS stakeholder, former reporter for The Miami Herald, and freelance writer who has followed the costs of this program over the past three years. Her Twitter feed with updates on national news about kids, screens, and schools can be found at: J CavanaughSimpson@JoCavanaughSim1

Updated 2/26, with further updates to come.

——————————————————————————————————————

Postscripts: A few notes and resources

  1. According to BCPS’ own Digital Conversion/STAT budget, more than $280 million in “Total Costs” was to be already spent by as early as 2018, and that excluded most of the multi-million dollar digital curricula contracts, as well as part of the second round of $140 million laptop contracts approved last year. See Towson Flyer op-ed with link to the BCPS Digital Conversion/STAT budget. Costs were pulled back temporarily in later STAT budgets when millions for interactive projectors were removed and the rollout of laptops to middle schools was slowed. Yet expenditures have since risen again overall. Laptops assigned per student went to all grades 1st-12th this past fall, with numerous problems cited, including: poor connectivity, inconsistency in software program usage, and hardware woes.)
    .
  2. Partly in response to this op-ed, Board of Education Vice Chair Julie C. Henn posted this note on her Facebook page: “My [recent] motion to reign in spending for 1:1 devices failed by one vote. The fight to do what’s right for our students and teachers, and to spend wisely, continues.
    .
    The original motion: “I move to amend the budget request to reflect an expedited transition of Grades K-8 to Chromebooks for the 2019-2020 academic year; to reflect a 5:1 student device ratio for Kindergarten, a 2:1 student to device ratio for grades 1-5, and to retain the current 1:1 student to device ratio for grades 6-8. I further move to end current K-8 device leases effective July 1, 2019.”
    .
    In Favor (board members): Causey, Henn, Kuehn, Mack, McMillion
    Opposed: Hayden, Jose, Offerman, Pasteur, Rowe, Scott
    .
    My amended motion to keep the Kindergarten device/student ratio at 5:1 passed unanimously.

  3. In response to Henn’s explanation, school board member Lily Rowe also on Facebook wrote that she supported more phased adjustments to the laptop and digital curricula though did not specify changes: “Moving to end K-8 device leases effective July 2019 would create chaos as we would have no way to implement the current curriculum for grades 3-8. I think we can all agree that if building a plane while flying it was a bad idea then dismantling it in the air is a worse one.” That’s a good point. But unfortunately, edtech proponents counted on such difficulties when they instituted what they called “second order” or irreversible change. See this explanation and linked story. As former superintendent Dance once claimed: “When you do a ‘second order change,’ we can’t go back to business as usual.” That, however, does not take into account humans’ adaptability in the face of crises, especially when children’s education, health, safety, and numerous varied needs are at stake.

The BCPS Budget and The County’s Fiscal Realities

The Baltimore County Board of Education will vote on the BCPS FY2020 Operating Budget on Tuesday, February 19.

The proposed budget is 11% over Maintenance of Effort.  TABCO and other bargaining units have testified for BCPS and the BOE to “go big” and ask for this amount so teachers can receive raises and cost-of-living adjustments, greatly needed support staff can be hired, and the extremely expensive STAT initiative can continue to be funded. Others have asked the BOE to do its due diligence and present a realistic budget outlining its priorities vs. letting the County government decide.

Read this February 14 Baltimore Sun article about the fiscal realities.

Read this November 2018 essay, which explains how we got here.

Read this February 1 BCPS teacher’s Letter to the Editor about the tough choices required.

“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.

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–well over $100 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, 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.”

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.”

— JCS

Additional notes:

The Maryland State Board of Education (MSDE), in an apparently unusual move, also recently 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.

This $4 million and other curriculum contracts also run contrary to previous promises that digital curricula would only cost $1 million annually. In a 2014 article, BCPS digital director Ryan Imbriale said the district 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). Mind-boggling numbers and shell games it seems.

Among other suggestions for budget cuts, excerpts from the Office of the Auditor schools budget analysis for 2018-19 include reducing the appropriation to Education’s “Other Instructional Costs” Program (3505), which does not include any salary costs.”

Lastly, the audit point out various school needs yet to be covered, including: Multi-year plans to increase the number of guidance counselors, social workers, pupil personnel workers, and psychologists.

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. 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?

Leaders indeed 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.”

Postscript 5/18:

Future projections for county and school retirees’ health care benefits remains unclear. Stakeholders should ask school board members and county council 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.

UPDATE: For more information on the retiree health fund and spending affordability issue see this Baltimore Sun story here. 

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. Maintenance vendors are apparently tackling all of the district’s tech: “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 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.

And 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. Not well.

 

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.