With BCPS’s new school board in place, some are breathing a sigh of relief

November 27 Baltimore Post editorial.

When it comes to Baltimore County Public Schools’ (BCPS) new school board, some are breathing a sigh of relief. And while there may be disagreement on the reasons why that is, one thing is certain: for many of those who have been paying attention over the last six years, the new group of new and incumbent board members is seen as a new dawn, a new day and a very welcome new beginning.



Gov. Hogan Appoints Four Members to New Hybrid School Board

On November 26, Gov. Hogan appointed four at-large members to serve on the new Baltimore County hybrid school board. These members will join the candidates elected to represent the County’s seven councilmanic districts.  The 12th member is the student member of the board.

Read this Baltimore Post article about it.

Read the Baltimore Sun’s article about it.

The new board will meet for the first time on December 11th. When available, the agenda and Livestream link to watch the meeting online will be posted here.

Dallas Dance’s Case Leads to Effort to Increase Ed-Tech Vendor/School System Relationship Transparency

The ISTE conference, the self-proclaimed “Epicenter of EdTech,” is held annually.  ISTE 2018 took place at the end of June in Chicago.  As reported by EdWeek’s Market Brief, the year’s conference included a new focus:

“One thing that will be different at ISTE this year is a fresh effort to increase transparency around the relationships between ed-tech vendors and school administrators and teachers. The issue appeared repeatedly in the headlines this school year, with the New York Times taking a critical look at teachers serving as company “brand ambassadors” and former Baltimore County, Md., superintendent Dallas Dance sentenced to 6 months in jail for not disclosing consulting work.”

One good thing from the Dance Era.

Read the entire article here.

Daily updates on edtech and beyond

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A new Twitter feed, with current links and stories on education technology, arts & sciences, and the evolution of digital culture and counter culture. Link here.

Recent news includes: Jun 20

Feel free to follow and send along ideas, links and stories…


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.


Absence of Permanence: State rejects school board appointment of Verletta White

Image result for images ethics

Ethics-fueled chaos at Baltimore County Public Schools expands, with Maryland schools superintendent blocking the board’s permanent appointment of Verletta White to the superintendency, citing “great concern” over ethics violations and a stalled audit of school contracts.

There’s a lot at stake. The decision — which allows time to review district initiatives and wait for a newly elected school board and new county executive within the year — only makes sense. As state Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon noted: “That will allow sufficient time for completion of the audit, and for full disclosure of the results.”

Verletta White could bring a great deal to the job; and she might continue as interim superintendent for another year, as the state noted. Yet time is needed: Ethics concerns linger. Normal procedures should be followed to select the schools’ next leader. Mislaid trust and lack of objectivity remain prevalent–well beyond recent outcomes with the controversial previous head of schools.

The sentencing of former Superintendent Dallas Dance to six months in jail on perjury charges revealed a culture of lies. Yet issues cited by the state prosecutor and the Baltimore Sun “Baltimore County officials fear that Dallas Dance’s conviction has hurt public trust in schools,” still persist among the administration he has left behind, including possible “exploitation of positions of trust.” That can be addressed, but only if action to separate from Dance’s questionable legacy is taken.

For White, who has said she wants to restore the public trust, these actions include:

  • Disclosing companies with which she met as a consultant for an entity (ERDI) that represents many edtech vendors with contracts at BCPS.
  • Paying back or officially donating the $12,000 or more in consulting fees for the undisclosed side job with ERDI–“private gain” which the Ethics Review Panel found in violation of ethics law.
  • Assertively pursuing a full and objective outside audit of district procurement policies and ongoing contracts for edtech and related multi-million deals, including the curricula rule, policy 6002, that allows no-bid contracts. That audit should include White’s year as interim.
  •  Stepping back from Dance’s suspect and costly laptop-per-student initiative known as STAT, and taking a more skeptical, and for students developmentally and fiscally appropriate view of screen time, video-game based software, and other unproven edtech industry approaches to education.

Overall, the STAT digital initiative still seems a pre-ordained BCPS-described “conversion” being used as a template and digital prototype around the nation: No matter the cost to students here.

There’s the continued travel conference culture, with nearly $400,000 for just a handful of administrators such as BCPS digital director Ryan Imbriale, who widely promotes the district’s digital initiative nationwide and whose role should be reconsidered* (Postscript 2). See travel costs laid out in next year’s BCPS budget,  according to records. Troublesome edtech industry affiliations and potential conflicts-of-interest reveal bias, not a balanced view about the pros and cons of increased tech reliance in schools, especially elementary level. Interim Superintendent White–who was recently voted permanent by the school board in a surprise mostly split-decision now toppled by Salmon–has served with the Center for Digital Education and other affiliations. She should instead forge her own way forward, relying on her years in the classroom, not jumping at yet another education fad: Computer-centered learning.

Various issues remain widely underreported:

White, also cited for ethics violations, has amended her financial disclosure statements after failing to disclose outside income, yet the school board’s Ethics Review Panel also found she violated ethics laws by accepting such compensation as private gain “in her capacity as a school official.” White admitted earning $12,000 over four years of undisclosed consulting for the Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI). Under Policy 8363 “Conflict of Interest — Prohibited Conduct,” as cited by the ethics panel and referred to in Salmon’s letter: “A school official may not intentionally use the prestige of office or public position for private gain of that official or the private gain of another.”

White was approached by ERDI because she was a public school official, the ethics panel found: “The Panel concludes that White was invited to participate in ERDI conferences directly as a result of her position as an education leader in the Baltimore County Public Schools and that she was compensated financially by ERDI for that participation.”

In response, White has vowed not to consult in the future (as Dance also promised), yet has she paid that money back? That private gain would remain.

Even more alarmingly, White has not publicly disclosed ERDI-related companies she met with as the schools’ Chief Academic Officer, a public role that oversaw the selection of ERDI-affiliated BCPS vendors under Superintendent Rule 6002. Such vendors now earn taxpayer-funded multimillion-dollar no-bid curricula contracts, most set for expansion. Those include a combined $6.4 million for just two software vendors, DreamBox Learning and Curriculum Associates/iReady, with whom Dance met as a consultant, as part of industry-supported efforts. Those contracts were championed and $4 million in expansions approved under White’s tenure in July 2017, after Dance left.

To “restore trust,” White should clearly name companies she met with via ERDI panels, focus groups, and conferences overall — conducted during the deployment of the STAT laptop-per-student rollout. She is a taxpayer-paid official. The public has a right to know potential or current vendors with whom she met. Otherwise, how do we know whether there was influence or not?

(Links to the state superintendent’s letter, and the full Ethics Review Panel report can be found within this Sun story). White has denied wrongdoing, and her letter to BCPS staff in response to the state’s decision can be found here.)

White has a strong background in the school system, and does not need to follow the signature program created by her predecessor, whose claims have been proven fraudulent. Time would allow a more objective review, for example, of the district’s current student score citations and claims, as those appear to also be cherry-picked to “support” the program, not objectively evaluate, and have been questionably defended. These claims were made in the past year, primarily under White.

White says that the audit would target the work of her predecessor as “the previous administration.” Yet she was second in command, and also oversaw and recommended the selection of the no-bid curricula contracts under BCPS Policy 6002. For a few details: That unusual BCPS policy for instructional materials bypasses competitive bidding processes, the gold standard in procurement. (The district’s avoidance of such bids has also drawn criticism from the state’s auditor).

Under the policy, a selection committee made up of teachers, principals and others reviews material brought to them by administrators such as White, and forwards the recommendations “to the Chief Academic Officer for review and action.” White, as chief academic officer, then made a recommendation to the board and superintendent for final approval. In other words, she was intimately involved in the selection or expansion of such no-bid curricula contracts totaling more than $60 million, and that’s among ERDI clients alone. These contracts remain in place, and are being further pursued at BCPS.

Here too is a video of White, along with Dance and Imbriale, at an edtech summit co- sponsored by Global Silicon Valley. The panel was led by a representative of Discovery Education, whose $4 million contract with BCPS was expanded to $10 million just a few months later. The school district said the conference paid for their trips and pricey California hotel rooms.

Indeed, to explore her claims of upstanding practices, the audit should now be expanded to cover White’s year in office as well, including payouts to and services provided by Discovery Ed, and contracts with DreamBox and iReady/Curriculum Associates and the recently approved new 4-year round of laptops–accomplished squarely under her tenure as interim superintendent. White discussed seeking an audit in November, yet seven months later it appears little has occurred.

In the end, the controversial laptop-per-student program brought to the county under suspect circumstances by Dance, who did promotional videos for edtech vendors such as HP and related, is mushrooming under White — with another staggering $140 million contract for laptop leases alone, on top of $100 million and counting already spent out via a previous concerning contract with the same bidder. These are hundreds of millions for leased laptops, which are discarded after four years. A forever revolving door of e-waste to boot.

Laptops are expanding to high schools next school year, which is likely where they should have been placed initially. Yet students are assigned devices 1:1 all the way down to first grade. The newly approved device contract with Daly Computers, an HP-reseller, also includes lease payments at least twice recommended costs and industry standards (even as recommended by HP), and indicates likely misspending–prompting ongoing questions of possible malfeasance that should be investigated via an audit and other means.

One has to therefore ask: Why not take a step back? What is the continued role of corporate influence here? How much pressure is coming from such quarters as Hewlett-Packard, whose devices have been chosen during both mega-million contract rounds (this time, the internal review, testing, and ranking of the proposed devices was conducted under an apparent “non-disclosure agreement.”) See a pattern of HP tech contract controversies here, here, here and BCPS-related advertising here. (Details in postscript below). And if one is to ‘follow the money:’ At more than $300 million combined, the Daly/HP contracts are the biggest money here.

Actual transparency, objectivity, and further digging is required before any trust can be restored. County and state audits and further investigations by the press and other oversight agencies are also required, otherwise defenses ring hollow.

Overall, technology is needed in schools, yet overspending, misspending, and a lack of objectivity takes away much-needed resources and other proven student supports, such as smaller class sizes, for more than 100,000 young people in the county, and possibly many more in the state and elsewhere if BCPS continues to serve as a “model” for other districts–which is still being pressed by the district administration as this titled event notes, “The Future of EdTech Starts Here“–despite deeply fraught circumstances at Baltimore County Public Schools.

Joanne C. Simpson, guest post


Hewlett-Packard, which has a checkered past with government tech contracts, has also been an apparent backer of the schools’ digital initiative/laptop program (see links below).
Hewlett-Packard widespread bribery case and settlement: “Computing multinational Hewlett-Packard (HP) is to pay US regulators $108m to settle a corruption scandal involving employees at subsidiaries in three countries, who were charged with bribing government officials to win and retain lucrative public contracts.”
HP workarounds / Idaho, got in a $180 million laptop contract two weeks before a voter referendum on the program (which was rejected by voters because of costs).
Likely relevant: “Hewlett-Packard has agreed to pay $16.25 million to the federal government to settle whistle-blower lawsuits alleging that contractors working for the company lavished meals and gifts . . . The investigation centered on tips that contractors working with Hewlett-Packard and other companies gave the gifts to employees of the Dallas and Houston independent school districts, hoping to get inside information and win contracts that were supposed to be awarded through competitive bidding, federal authorities said.” Dance formerly worked at the Houston independent school district. He was not cited, though numerous trips and meals were covered by edtech companies and the school district while he was superintendent in Baltimore County.
Other violations and apparent strong-arming of journalists (!)
HP/Baltimore County Public Schools video, etc.
There are also numerous other “collaborative” documents, such as an HP “Case Study” of BCPS titled: “Blended learner-centered classrooms integrate digital content with HP Tablet PCs.”
Postscript 2:*
Ryan Imbriale, who “leads” the BCPS digital initiative, is not exactly objective on pros and cons of tech integration in schools: According to his bio here:  He “has extensive experience presenting to audiences on online and blended learning,” and “is a Past-President of Maryland’s ISTE Affiliate, and a former member of the Board of Directors for ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education.”
“In 2010, Tech & Learning magazine named Ryan one of the future leaders” and he “was honored by Intel® as an Education Visionary, an elite group of approximately 40 education leaders from all over the world who will be exemplars for global education transformation.
See link URL here: https://2017learningimpactleadershipinst.sched.com/speaker/rimbriale

Proposed county schools’ laptop contract pricing more than double recommended one-to-one cost, report shows

Piles of U.s. Dollar Bills on Silver and White Suitcase

A tech industry report reveals that the proposed $140 million contract for laptops  going before the school board next week would cost the district more than twice as much per student as recommended.

The One-to-One Institute report, known as Project RED: Revolutionizing Education, advises school districts on how they can bring laptop-per-student digital initiatives to their districts.

Trouble is: the amount being spent by BCPS on nearly all segments of the digital initiative known as STAT far outpace what is recommended as fiscally sound in the report and elsewhere. And even the new $140 million laptop contract “refresh,” which claims to trim costs (though tech support expenses remain unknown), remains an outlier, charging a premium far above even an edtech industry standard.

Recommended cost of devices per student, and common among many school districts nationwide, according to the report: $400, including warranty.

Proposed BCPS cost under the contract under consideration with Daly Computers, Inc.: $906, including warranty.

And in a particular irony:  Primary Project RED report sponsors are HP, Inc. and Intel—the manufacturers of the very devices and processors for which BCPS will pay more than twice the amount the company-sponsored analysis recommends—a scenario that defies logic and is clearly contrary to district claims that STAT is a financially sustainable program.

On top of all this (as if such questionable spending is not enough), a recent BCPS administrative answer to board member questions on the pending $140 million contract apparently notes that even though BCPS is leasing more than 100,000 student units of the HP Probook X360 11 G2 EE, the district is getting no bulk-rate discount. What?

The Project RED report comes out every few years, with last year’s summary being the most recent. Costs for laptops, WiFi infrastructure, and related (outlined in the report)  since previous summaries have remained similar or are slightly less.

The One-to-One Institute’s financial report is meant to convince school districts they can afford 1:1 programs: “Education has often failed to replicate the success of other industry sectors in automating and transforming through technology, in large part due to the challenge—real or perceived—of allocating the necessary initial capital budget to start such initiatives . . . However, the Project RED data support the business case that there is enough money in the system at a macro level to properly implement technology.”

Yet when STAT rolled out in 2014, the board-approved initial BCPS $205 million contract with Daly Computers put glitchy HP devices into classrooms that were even higher priced over the last few years, at nearly triple the industry standard. Why all those wasted dollars? And why aren’t the powers-that-be asking the right questions?

This blog has followed the costs of the digital initiative known as STAT in numerous posts, so further details on expenditures, contracts (and hundreds of thousands in ongoing administrator travel) can be found throughout. Considering the proposed 2018-19 BCPS budget is still on the table, elected and appointed officials now spending or gauging how taxpayer dollars are spent—Board of Education members, the Baltimore County Council and County Executive, state officials, as well as fourth-estate media–should take a closer look at the fiscally questionable tech spending at BCPS. Period. This is essential to their oversight roles. 

As also noted in the 2017 RED report: “If the public thinks their tax dollars are not being wisely used, there are serious consequences.” And well there should be.

For the most part, such watchdog groups have relied instead on the increasingly questionable word of BCPS administrators. In order to truly prove fiscally responsibility, our leaders need to closely peruse this report, conduct forensic audits, and objectively compare BCPS expenditures here to other districts in Maryland (see postscript 1 below) and elsewhere. School systems note they can’t financially sustain the $1,000 or so college students might pay for laptops retail.

For example, Montgomery County Public Schools, which offers a well-regarded digital initiative, and similar top systems cite overall budget needs when they seek devices that cost generally $400 to $500 per student. Anne Arundel County Public Schools, which has tallied some of the highest PARCC scores in the state, has also utilized lower-priced Chromebooks, on carts in elementary schools. In general, laptops or tablets are also not assigned one-to-one per student in all grades to balance spending, and not used 1:1 especially in developmentally vulnerable early elementary grades where the results of expanded screen time is already raising alarms among education experts too.

A similar scenario can found in the lauded digital district that has served as a model for BCPS and others: Mooresville Graded School District, which among other approaches spends less, does not assign devices per student in grades 1 and 2, and looks for creative fiscal options that other districts pursue as well (Here, too, a litany of fiscal tech advice, much of which is not followed at BCPS).

“Mooresville schools opted for a lease-purchase agreement that allows the district to lease the MacBook Airs for $215 a year, or about $1 million, and resell them after two to three years of use.”

Also note how BCPS compared to the spectacularly failed and exorbitant Los Angeles Unified School District iPad debacle. Baltimore County’s “technology is drastically more expensive than even LAUSD’s inflated iPad price tag.” BCPS device costs by 2015 were “more than the cost of an expensive Chromebook and high-end iPad combined.”

Just think—if you can stomach it—about the wanton government waste here in Baltimore County, and consider all the school discretionary fund cutbacks (slashed by more than 50 percent); lack of special education staff, teacher turnover and unfilled positions, and those many, many, many other unmet school needs.

The new $140 million Daly contract is set for a board vote on Tuesday April 3. There is apparently no time being set aside at that public meeting for public comment.* So reach out now to board members and county and state officials, and make your voices heard. See the actual bid solicitation/request for proposals (RFP) letter here. See board member questions and admin responses here.

And for those who prefer the use of devices in schools in various forms, I doubt that overspending on such offerings in the end is among their goals.

Let’s truly be balanced about the tech integration at Baltimore County Public Schools and not just say it’s so.

a cost wrap-up column by freelance writer Joanne C. Simpson

Postscript 1:

Here is an initial breakdown of several neighboring county district laptop/tablet expenditures, according to school board members, see district Q&A here:

“Montgomery County paid $375 to purchase each Chromebook.
Harford County is paying $523 to purchase each device.
Worcester County: $730 each.
Prince George’s County: $400-500 per iPad for students in low-performing middle schools, paid for with Title I funds.”

Postscript 2:

Here a few overall cost breakdowns. Under the One-to-One Initiative’s Project RED report, the various categories that are considered elements of any one-to-one laptop initiative—infrastructure, professional development, curricula (see pages 4 and 5)—have often not been counted in the dollar amount cited in the media and elsewhere as the overall cost of the BCPS STAT program–the ‘$200 million figure (which has long been for laptops leases alone), plus millions in curricula.’ The industry report also highly recommends transparency on all related costs, which is lacking at the school district.

The report cites expenditures per student, and some amounts may align when broken down among BCPS students. But many expenditures in addition to the laptops remain higher (also, the proposed laptop cost per-teacher is more than double).

Take, for example, one staggering out-the-door cost: nearly $8 million spent just in software license fees annually (for the BCPSOne platform, Microsoft student option license fees, and digital curricula, an amount likely to expand); (#17 board member answers)

In terms of curriculum, meanwhile, there’s $60 million (ERDI-listed clients) to $70 million in board-approved digital curricula contracts, some of which only go out another couple years, so also would be renewed and expanded.

For curricula comparison, according to the report, a recommended school district average should be $40 per student for curricula software annually, or about $4 million a year in such expenditures at BCPS.

Such pricey software options are also questionable in terms of student outcomes (along with recent BCPS claims that 10 lighthouse/pilot school averages are outpacing national averages on PARCC scores and related. Recent analyses indicate that non-lighthouse schools without STAT have fared the same, and that overall district student math PARCC scores are markedly down—so nebulous district claims remain suspect and need closer objective review. Particularly concerning are recent BCPS claims that go far beyond what the JHU evaluations indicate, and use internal Measures for Academic Progress (MAP) scores to claim “clear and absolutely unequivocal” improvements. MAP is an internal tool provided by a company, NWEA, that has a multi-million contract with BCPS so is neither standardized nor objective. The scores appear also to be cherry picked, and BCPS has refused to release all relevant data for those scores, despite a public letter from a stakeholder advocacy group, ABCSchools. 

See also this recent symposium white paper from the University of Virginia and James Madison University, sponsored partly another industry support group, Digital Promise: “Merit or Marketing?: Evidence and Quality of Efficacy Research in Educational Technology Companies.” That analysis lists the BCPS-touted DreamBox Learning math program as “low quality” and rates the iReady reading-based software in the middling range. Each company contract at BCPS was recently upped to $3.2 million—and the staggering $6.4 million being spent on two software programs is likely to expand further.

And, lastly, on the issue of suspect circumstances that require further review:  former BCPS Superintendent S. Dallas Dance, who spearheaded STAT, reportedly met with DreamBox and iReady in outside undisclosed consulting with the Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI), which led in part to a recent criminal conviction on charges of perjury.

Current Interim Superintendent Verletta White, who also consulted with ERDI (initially undisclosed, but not charged) pressed for the combined $4 million expansion of those two contracts last summer after Dance’s departure. (An aside: Hewlett-Packard, a longtime ERDI client according to the organization’s records, has been removed from the recently amended ERDI-client/partner/colleague list. See gap in the alphabet. Hmmm.)

White, meanwhile, refuses to name which companies she met with in her publicly-paid position as the district’s Chief Academic Officer. Again: Integrity? Transparency? Objectivity?

*Last update: This is also telling about where things stand on the public comment issue 3/29. The board has to vote to let the public speak at a public meeting. Who will vote against that?

“Update on public comment at April 3, 2018, Board of Education meeting

Towson, MD – In light of the truncated nature of the agenda, public comment does not appear on the Board’s published agenda for its April 3, 2018, meeting. In order to include public comment, the Board’s policy requires unanimous consent to amend its agenda. Members of the public may sign up to speak as of 5:30 p.m. on April 3. Should the board vote to permit public comment, the Board’s standard practice –to select a maximum of 10 randomly chosen individuals – will be followed.”