A guest op-ed by Joanne C. Simpson
For those in education technology circles, travel opportunities abound. BCPS administrators should know: They’ve spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, some to attend gigs at resorts and high-priced hotels across the country.
Tech talk pays. Consider this list of more than 1,500 edtech conferences worldwide between late 2016 and December 2017, ranging from “The Digital Education Show Middle East” in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to the “Illinois Education and Technology Conference (IETC).” Laptop, tablet and software sales to U.S. schools are increasingly big business—a Silicon Valley-born market projected to hit $21 billion by 2020.
Baltimore County Public Schools’ top administrators have visited their share of such events—in which BCPS’ STAT laptop-per-student program, as well as the marketplace’s pricey edtech products and future are widely discussed. These are multiple trips—by multiple BCPS staffers, including interim Superintendent Verletta White, digital director Ryan Imbriale, and his wife and fellow BCPS admin Jeanne—to California, Arizona, Florida, and as far away as Geongju, Korea.
A May 16 op-ed in The Towson Flyer revealed the cost of just five such trips for frequent flyer BCPS Superintendent S. Dallas Dance: nearly $11,000 disclosed after a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request. Outside records show Dance, whose recent unexpected resignation takes effect on July 1, took more than 35 out-of-state trips to related conferences or events during his five years at the helm of the 112,000-student district. At four days a journey, that would be 140 school days, plus local jaunts to Arlington or New York City, during his tenure. The overall costs of the superintendent’s taxpayer-reimbursed trips remain unclear–but likely surpass $50,000 for his five-year tenure, based on records. (Administrators also noted that the superintendent’s travel budget was approximately $10,000 a year, according to the BCPS operating budget).
Some professional conferences and leadership events are expected in a large organization. The superintendent expenses reviewed were generally higher than district or federal policy guidelines. And such costs at BCPS go far beyond one person. The travel tally born by taxpayers is larger. Much, much larger it appears: At least several hundred thousand in taxpayer dollars. In the next year alone.
In the 2017-18 budget nearly $300,000 is listed for BCPS-confirmed employee “travel, mileage, conferences, professional dues” and related expenses, which show up under “Other Charges”—just for a few offices and a handful of professional positions mostly under the Office of the Superintendent.
White was among several staffers, including Dance, who attended various ASU-GSV summits. Consider this review of the Arizona State University-Global Silicon Valley Summit “For those who value representative government, local control of education and diversity of educational options, some ideas articulated in the official white paper produced by the organizers of the event could very well dampen the excitement. Also, possibly, the $2,795 ticket price . . . The white paper titled “Vision 2020,” was authored by Global Silicon Valley, the investment company sponsoring the event. It’s a pretty frank blueprint for the corporatization of education. It moves well beyond advocating innovation in educational technology and into redesigning education as a permanent, captive market for technology vendors,“ notes this column. See this related video of a 2016 ASU GSV panel led by Discovery Education, a BCPS vendor, and featuring White, Dance, Imbriale, and two other BCPS staffers—expenses paid by the conference, according to BCPS.
The Board of Education, while reviewing the 2017-18 $1.6 billion proposed superintendent budget in January, asked the administration: “Under the Office of the Superintendent, please detail what is included in the “Other Charges” category…
Answer: “Travel, mileage, conferences, professional dues for all offices, [mostly within the Office of the Superintendent] p. 141–178: $281,063.”
Trouble is: Fewer than 20 professional staffers are listed in those offices (not all even travel), including the office of the Chief Communications Officer. (Such positions are indicated in the budget under “Professional FTEs”.) A handful of employees spending nearly $300,000 in travel, dues, and related costs? In a single year?”
If many “other charges” pan out the same for other departments—travel, mileage, conferences, professional dues—such taxpayer-funded costs could be mind-boggling, the BCPS budget indicates. Including several other travel-savvy offices, that tally would likely mushroom beyond $700,000—just for 2017-18.
What else might fall under “Other Charges?” Unspecified contracts? Events? (Supplies, equipment, and service contracts are already listed in other categories). Questions posed to the administration regarding such figures have gone unanswered publicly so far.
And why do such vague categories as “Other Charges” appear so frequently in the BCPS budget at all? Unfortunately, this seems indicative of the school district’s hit-or-miss transparency track record.
Anyone who travels knows how expensive it can be. There are flights, hotel charges, and sometimes artisanal meals. Charged by Dance and reimbursed by BCPS (though a superintendent certainly deserves to eat decently when traveling): Lunch charges of $68 at Austin’s South Congress Cafe, including calamari with orange ginger, an $18 omelet and a frisse & endive salad during the March 2015 SXSWedu conference. A few hours later: a $60 dinner at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, featuring two bowls of Louisiana seafood gumbo and one pan-seared tilapia entree, BCPS-released receipts show.
Nearly half of BCPS students qualified last year for free or reduced price meals—many living under the federal poverty level of $20,420 for a family of three.
Overall BCPS employee travel costs, which have been questioned by a few members of the Board of Education, remain unclear yet concerning, as the travel op-ed noted. BCPS expenditure databases also reveal dozens of jaunts by employees, not listed by name, to such swanky hotels as SAX Chicago Hotel; the iconic luxe Fontainebleau Hotel in Florida (six 2012 trips: $5,250); and three apparent Las Vegas 5-star casinos and resorts: the “Venetian/Palazzo,”and Red Rock Casino, Resort and Spa.
What might be otherwise “hidden” in budgetary categories? This is public taxpayer money, so we certainly have a right to know. Here is the breakdown on some amounts in question, according to the district’s FY18 budget:
In other departments or offices, in which travel or professional dues seems to have occurred, such “Other Charges” would top $441,000 for FY18, even though fewer than two dozen professional positions are listed. Add that to the Office of Superintendent-related figures, in which ‘travel and related’ is indeed the case, and we are looking at $720,000. Again, just for next year alone.
Here are a few budget figures to consider: Chief Academic Officer: “Other Charges” $24,500 for fiscal year 2018 (FY18). For World Languages, which includes the Passport program and Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL), that number is about $74,000.
All for junkets and such? Likely not. But, again, what happens when we throw lots of expenditures into a category titled Other Charges? A financial blind spot. Further review of one BCPS database also reveals various dues or fees, for example, paid to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), items ranging from $344 to $837 and linked to mid-level administration. A primary ISTE mission sponsor: Microsoft, a central BCPS vendor.
(STAT mentor/teacher travel appears to be in addition to these figures, and could also be substantial. And there are numerous indications of out-of-state travel and related by mid-level administrators, principals, a few board members, and others elsewhere in the budget. Under the Office of the Board of Education, for example, the 2017-18 school year budget lists another $100,948 in such “Other Charges,” confirmed by the admin, again, as “professional dues, conference fees, travel, mileage reimbursement, and other board member expenses.”)
There’s lots of money flying around here.
Other offices prone to trips and related, especially edtech-oriented, include Digital Learning ($70,500 in ‘Other Charges’ for FY18), Executive Director Information Technology, ($98,200), Executive Director Innovative Learning ($107,0000, with just one professional FTE), and Innovative Learning Projects ($66,700). (Seriously, these are all different offices.)
For these and the other departments mentioned above, extrapolate just a few years back, to 2015-16, which is cited in the budget as “actual FY16.” The amount for such “Other Charges” for just three years is staggering:
More than a million and a half dollars, possibly for a few dozen employees’ “travel, mileage, conferences, professional dues” or similar costs? Can’t be . . . right? What else? (Some very large “Other Charges” single line items are clearly not such costs, but are for employee benefits, retirement, and insurance, administration responses to the board indicate.)
Overall, listing ‘actual’ cost categories vs. nebulous “other charges” would make this all clear, leaving no opportunity for shell games. A full audit—internal, county, and/or state legislative—is required for these and other concerning issues, including about $75 million in digital curricula contract spending authorities—many with for-profit companies that attend, sponsor, and lead panels at these same edtech industry conferences and events. See costs summary and supporting links here. With an audit, we would know what’s what.
BCPS, after all, was criticized in a 2015 Maryland legislative Audit Report (see Appendix) for not requiring competitive procurements for all contracts. Under current BCPS curricula selection policy, records show, many of the digital software program contracts are No Bid.
BCPS vendors or “partners,” as oft-referred to by the administration, include Discovery Education, DreamBox Learning, Curriculum Associates/iReady, McGraw-Hill, and so on (see contract links below). Those companies and others doing business at BCPS were big players at conferences or summits led by ISTE or other edtech industry groups, such as Digital Promise. The total for just these four companies’ contract spending authorities with BCPS: Nearly $30 million, with expansions expected.
Such digital curricula spending authorities are on top of a $205 million contract with a provider of the Hewlett-Packard $1,400 laptops, which are to be assigned to each student in 1st-12th grade under the Dance-founded initiative, STAT (Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow). (That megacontract did go out to bid, though a few board members and others have questioned the process).
Overall spending and edtech links have been detailed in various op-eds and venues over the past year, revealing costs surpassing $300 million in the program’s first several years alone, and almost $60 million annually thereafter. Yet the Grand Total, under STAT and Dance’s umbrella plan Blueprint 2.0 etc., still remains unknown. And the results? So far there is no objective evidence that the experimental program even works, and the county’s PARCC standardized student test scores have dropped, with the district average mostly sinking below the state average in Reading, Writing, and Math in 2016.
Baltimore County Public Schools is moving forward with Interim Superintendent Verletta White, who has risen in BCPS’ ranks and is an experienced leader by all measures. White, BCPS’ Chief Academic Officer who has overseen curricula selection, takes the reigns of the district on July 1. White has said she plans “to be a steady hand in carrying out the policies that Dance has begun.”
Will Verletta White’s personal vision also lead our public schools?
In the end, specific questions have been asked. Authentic answers are welcome. Even if not all “Other Charges” are related to travel and such, a costly edtech travel/promotion culture could continue if the STAT initiative expands as currently planned.
This would include ongoing, numerous out-of-state presentations by Ryan Imbriale, executive director of BCPS’ Department of Innovative Learning. In January, Imbriale was on the agenda of the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando, along with his wife, IT director Jeanne Imbriale and a couple other BCPS employees.
Did BCPS reimburse expenses for four staffers at $2,000 or so each for this one event—costing taxpayers $8,000 plus? Both Imbriales and Information Technology director Lloyd Brown also attended the IMS Global consortium in Denver, Colorado in May, titled “The Future of EdTech Starts Here.”
Couldn’t one or so BCPS leaders well-represent our schools?
Some costs were paid by the event or edtech sponsors, though that raises other ethics issues regarding conflict of interest. (That was the case for the April 2016 ASU GSV (Global Silicon Valley) Summit in San Diego, California for four BCPS staffers, according to the district.) Also: Were any BCPS administrators paid by outside entities for speeches or presentations at these events? Board members and others have posed this question. Answers remain scarce. And what about any related business consulting opportunities, as increasingly seems likely . . .
It took a year to get access to documents, without exorbitant record fees, for Superintendent Dance’s travel for just five trips. How long would it take for multiple employees? Why not make these costs and specific activities clear?
In the end, that sunny Florida trip in the middle of winter could pay up to half the annual salary of a kindergarten assistant in classes with 25 or more children.
And for some of that $700,000 in “other charges” for next year alone: According to education advocate Dr. Laurie Taylor-Mitchell: “About $600,000 would eliminate the costs of Reduced Price Meals for the entire school system for one year, which would help the 7,199 students qualifying for Reduced Price Meals get the food they need in school.”
That would leave more than $30,000 to “stock saltines in the nurse’s offices so that when students need to take medications they don’t have to take them on empty stomachs if they haven’t eaten.”
The remaining $86,000: “About $950 for each of 90 schools where the poverty rate is 50% or higher to stock non-perishable food in social worker, counselor, and Per Pupil Worker offices,” according to Taylor-Mitchell, who advocates for social justice in education. Hunger, and related stomach pain, can contribute to discipline/behavioral issues, which seem to be on the rise.
“With these kinds of critical needs within BCPS, and there are many others pertaining to support staff ratios and inadequate mental health services, it’s imperative that BCPS undergoes an audit to evaluate what funding could be allocated to essential services supporting education.”
These are the true costs here. And, for students, it all adds up.
–Joanne C. Simpson is a former reporter at The Miami Herald, a BCPS stakeholder, college educator, and freelance writer based in Baltimore. This is the last in a series of op-eds on BCPS edtech-related costs under the current administration.
UPDATE: Related in-depth information and travel details by investigative reporter Ann Costantino: Is BCPS in Need of a Financial Audit?
And on Dance’s post-BCPS consultant jobs for entities involved with such travel and other edtech ties.)
Postscript: BCPS stakeholders, keep watching. The sort of contract that might show up again before the school board: “Virtual Learning Support, contract RGA-101-13 (US Army Med Research Acquisition Activity).” U. S. Army Medical Research? Conducted on children? The $500,000 contract, apparently running out, was led by local gaming/VR contractor, Breakaway, LTD. Yet Virtual Reality use on children is banned in some D.C. museums and elsewhere because of vision and brain-related medical issues. Studies reveal health effects. In the end, how much are we willing to experiment on our children?
Brain development and vision concerns noted in this Live Science article: “Are Virtual Reality Headsets Safe for Kids?”
One issue with “VR is the so-called vergence-accommodation conflict. When you view the world normally, your eye first points the eyeballs — vergence — and then focuses the lenses — accommodation — on an object, and then these two processes are coupled to create a coherent picture.”
“In a 2014 study in rats, researchers at the University of California found that the neurons in a brain region associated with spatial learning behaved completely differently in virtual environments compared to in real ones, with more than half of the neurons shutting down while in VR. What this means for humans is unclear, but the scientists said it highlighted the need for more research on the long-term effects of VR.”
“According to Marientina Gotsis, director of the Creative Media & Behavioral Health Center at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts . . . VR could have an even bigger impact on the developing brains of children.”
“The brain is very plastic in young ages, and prolonged exposure with improperly fitted devices could incur damage,” she said. “Children also may not understand how to communicate eyestrain and may lack reflexes to remove the devices if they find them uncomfortable.”
See BCPS contract info here: https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/RGA-101-13%20Virtual%20Learning%20Support.pdf
A sampling of edtech and related BCPS contract spending authorities. If links do not connect, urls can be copied and pasted:
Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL):
Code to the Future:
Daly Computers/Hewlett-Packard reseller: