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.
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
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.