Resigned BCPS Superintendent Dallas Dance Takes Consulting Jobs: UPDATED

A guest op-ed by Joanne C. Simpson

Dallas Dance could be coming to a school district near you. For a visit anyway. Dance’s new role after leaving his $287,000-plus annual superintendent job at Baltimore County Public Schools–a cocktail of national consulting gigs.

Two companies, MGT Consulting Group and the Center for Digital Education, have had at least tangential relationships with numerous BCPS vendors, the superintendent, and/or the school system itself.

UPDATE: A third was recently posted on the former superintendent’s LinkedIn site:Partner, Strategos Group, Jul 2017 – Present. Work with SELECT clients who are committed to high-impact business growth and transaction advisory services.” (The co-founder and managing partner of Strategos, A. “Trey” Traviesa, is also CEO and chairman of the board at MGT. In the for-profit companies’ skill set: “leveraging strategic relationships.”)

The day before Dance’s final day on June 30, the superintendent announced the full-time position with MGT Consulting Group, a large Florida-based educational consulting company with offices nationwide. Among MGT goals: “Future-Facing. MGT recognizes the changing face of education, as requisite knowledge shifts and desirable goals are reimagined so students are prepared for a 21st century workplace.”

A current focus of MGT Consulting, one shared by Dance, is “technology strategic planning:” “Our experts know how to effectively produce strategic planning documents including all necessary inputs and are able to present the technology strategic plans to governing bodies in a way that encourages adoption.”

Dance’s strategic planning skills are evident in reports for BCPS, including Blueprint 2.0. Yet there are questions about the financial efficacy–as well as no objective evidence of positive student learning outcomes–for Dance’s signature laptop-per-student initiative known as Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT). Among other controversies, Dance was criticized when Baltimore County’s standardized PARCC student test scores last year came in lower than districts in the region, and in some cases dropped below the state average. Still unproven since launched in 2014, STAT nonetheless is being used widely–by Dance and others, including BCPS’ digital director Ryan Imbriale–as an example to replicate in other school districts around the country. 

Dance and other top district administrators have also traveled widely across the U.S., spending hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars to do just that. See post with details here.

The backdrop: Computer and software sales to schools in the U.S. are increasingly big business—a Silicon Valley-born market projected to hit $21 billion by 2020.

***

Among other links, MGT Consulting Group had a contract with Baltimore County Public Schools in the past, Dance later said, noting he will be a senior vice president for MGT, in part “to lead a new effort to provide school systems advice on improving academic performance.”

And a second part-time consulting position: a Senior Fellow at the Center for Digital Education (CDE), advising technology industry companies creating educational products. Dance, a longtime public school official, will now work inside that industry, yet consult with school districts as well.

As recently reported: “Specializing in K-12 and higher education technology trends, policy and funding, the CDE is also a division of e.Republic, a national research company which focuses exclusively on education on the state and local government levels.  According to their website, e.Republic works with over 700 companies – from “Fortune 500s to startups” –  in order to help those companies ‘power their public sector sales and marketing success.’  Among the companies listed: Intel, IBM, Blackboard, Microsoft, Aerohive, Apple, Samsung, Dell and Google.” Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, and other companies are familiar entities at BCPS. (See contracts below).

Why these consulting groups? And why now? (Dance resigned just one year into a second four-year contract, giving the district just two months notice). Perhaps an answer is partly here: A recently approved change in BCPS’ Ethics Code apparently raises questions about any employee participating in, or negotiating a job with, an entity doing business with BCPS and related (see below).

Ethics code revisions also appear to put limits on any employee participating/holding a position in a Limited Liability Corporation. (Dance has just such an LLC.) The timing of all this is quite likely not coincidental.

Dance unexpectedly announced his resignation on Tuesday, April 18, the day various Ethics Code changes were set for a first read by the Board of Education. BCPS’ Policy Review Committee, which is also advised by the district’s General Council Margaret-Ann F. Howie, had suggested the following amendments, among others:

See the policy here and linked below: http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AN3JHM4B9A7F/$file/8363_Policy_PRC_3-13-17.pdf

The Ethics Code details: Policy 8363 “Conflict of Interest–Prohibited Conduct,” with added language in ALL CAPS, notes that except as otherwise permitted, a school official may not participate in any matter in which the following is a party: “A business entity, INCLUDING A LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY OR A LIMITED LIABILITY PARTNERSHIP, for which the school official or a QUALIFYING relative of the official is an officer, director, trustee, partner or employee.”

In Dance’s 2016 financial disclosure forms, he acknowledged ownership of the LLC Deliberate Excellence Consulting. Dance wrote that Deliberate Excellence, registered in Maryland, was formerly in the name of his father, Roy Dance, in statements made “under penalties of perjury,” according to the forms. (See more on discrepancies with the LLC in Postscript/Update2 below). 

Does this Ethics Code revision, which would take effect after Dance leaves, make such directorship a complication or a conflict? Seems so. Maybe that LLC was too important to let go?

Dance–who has declined to comment on STAT ‘s more than $300 million in costs, his taxpayer-funded travel and related issues–reported no personal income from the LLC.

Among other recent developments, Google Alerts on June 12 noted that Dance is also publishing a book by the same name as his LLC: Deliberate Excellence.

“SAGE Publishing: Shaun Dallas Dance Baltimore County Public Schools, Superintendent. Deliberate Excellence. Professional Book.” It’s unclear if Dance has received a financial advance for the book, which is due out in early 2018, or if that would be prohibited under the district’s ethics code; his role as superintendent is cited specifically. Any income would need to be reported on financial disclosure forms, where disparities have led to recent financial disclosure violations for Dance. 

Also, under the revised Ethics Code Policy 8363 is 2 (c and d), which notes that a “school official may not participate in any matter in which any of the following is a party [including] a business entity with which the school official . . HAS APPLIED FOR A POSITION OR is negotiating EMPLOYMENT.” It appears that also covers any business with a contract with the district, according to the policy. (The language is rather convoluted. Any employment attorneys out there?) A quick search of BCPS procurement databases does not reveal a current contract for MGT Consulting Group. Will we see one down the pike?

Dance does have numerous crossover affiliations with the Center for Digital Education, its partners, and a related publication, Converge, winning awards and accolades here, here and here–the last in which Dance was named “Maryland Outstanding Leader Using Technology in 2017,” just several weeks before the superintendent announced his resignation: “Dr. Dance’s honor also qualifies him to compete at the national level for an award from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).” The state award was given by the Maryland affiliate of ISTE, which is also listed as a CDE “collaborator.”

Yet Dance also serves on the board of ISTE, and did so while superintendent. He presented at ISTE conferences and conducted numerous “telephone conferences” with ISTE’s board members, according to his superintendent Weekly Updates. See this Bloomberg profile of ISTE, Inc., which notes Dance’s board re-appointment, as well as ISTE revenues and tax forms–annual revenue topping $15.2 million in 2014, the most recent year included.

ISTE edtech sponsors and corporate members, meanwhile, include Microsoft, Discovery Education, CDW-G, and other for-profit companies also awarded mostly no-bid multi-million dollar contracts with BCPS under Dance’s tenure. (Just the three named above approach nearly $18 million over the next few years alone; See also contract links below). ISTE’s sponsor contribution levels are marked here, including ‘Mission’ sponsors like Microsoft at $150,000 annually.

There are way too many edtech ties here . . . 

(Even during the superintendent’s last week on the job, according to his 6/30/17 Weekly Update, Dance spent two school days attending the “International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) quarterly board meeting in San Antonio, TX.” CDE officials apparently also attended, announcing Dance’s fellowship position in a press release prior to his actually leaving).

The Ethics Code revisions, approved by the board at the June 13 meeting, would apparently need to be reviewed by state officials before being made law, which is expected in July. Dance’s last day: June 30. Interim superintendent Verletta White officially takes the helm of the 112,000-student school district on July 1. (A BCPS top administrator, White is also linked to the CDE as a member of the center’s Chief Academic Officers Group.)

Overall, were Superintendent Dance’s consulting and travel proclivities too much for our cash-strapped public school system, with its many unmet needs? Whether or not recent Ethics Code changes factored into the superintendent’s departure, various violations or perceptions of conflicts of interest could be underlining issues.

Perhaps this mostly private-sector consulting scenario better suits his promotional charms. The new positions do allow him the flexibility to live close to family in Richmond, Va. Either way, it seems the nationwide trips promoting the expansion of technology in education–much of that travel on the public dime–has indeed paid off for the superintendent’s career and future, and might yet do the same for other edtech traveling BCPS administrators.

In the end, however, what does it all mean for BCPS students?

Joanne C. Simpson is a former staff writer at The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Johns Hopkins Magazine, as well as a BCPS stakeholder, college educator, and freelance writer based in Baltimore.

Postscript/Update 2:

Dance’s Deliberate Excellence Consulting (DEC, LLC) also has a checkered history. Even though the superintendent vowed not to consult after his first ethics violation for a side job with the SUPES Academy–with which BCPS was doing business–questions remain. Dance “agreed that he will not take any other consulting jobs as long as he works for the school system. Dance also said in a statement that he would be more careful to avoid conflicts,” according to the Baltimore Sun.

Here is a thorough post on the LLC’s history.  And, as of now, Deliberate Excellence Consulting LLC (ID no. W14868442) is still ACTIVE, yet also listed as “Not in Good Standing” with the State of Maryland. The document still cites Roy R. Dance as the resident agent. See possible reasons for the new status, excerpted below.

https://egov.maryland.gov/BusinessExpress/EntitySearch/BusinessInformation/W14868442

Not in Good Standing” means the business entity is not in compliance with one or more Maryland laws that apply to businesses and their responsibilities in this State. The status can be returned to Good Standing by addressing the manner in which the business is out of compliance.”

“The most common reasons that a business is not in good standing are
– A missing Business Personal Property Return (PPR), also called a Form 1 – A monetary penalty resulting from the late filing of a PPR
– An issue with the Maryland Office of the Comptroller
– An issue with the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation – A check or other form of payment that was dishonored
– Not having an active resident agent.”

And related BCPS contract spending authority links:

Microsoft, $2.9 million

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/060915%20JMI-624-15%20Microsoft%20Software%20Solutions.pdf

Discovery Education, $10 million

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/092716%20RGA-127-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Faculty%20Professional%20Development%20Streaming%20Content%20and%20Related%20Services.pdf

CDW-G, $5 million (partial)

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/120616%20RGA-107-07%20Modification%20-%20The%20National%20Joint%20Powers%20Alliance%20Purchasing%20Consortium.pdf

IBM $2.6 million

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/JMI-614-04%20BOARD%20EXHIBIT%202-3-2015.pdf

And among many others, a contract spending authority for tech just approved 6/13/17. Apple, Inc., within a consortium that also includes Dell and CDW-G: $20 million

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/061317%20JMI-631-17%204%20Information%20Technology%20Hardware%20LB%20.pdf

Edtech Travel Part II: Boom or Bust in Baltimore County Public Schools’ Budget?

UPDATE: Related information on the post below and its predecessor, Part I:

Is BCPS in Need of a Financial Audit?

A guest op-ed by Joanne C. Simpson

For those in education technology circles, travel opportunities abound.

Consider this EdTechTalk list of more than 1,500 mostly 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)” in Springfield, Illinois.

Computer and software sales to schools in the U.S. 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 the future of digital education, as well as BCPS’ STAT laptop-per-student program and marketplace edtech products are widely discussed. These are mostly multiple trips—by multiple BCPS staffers—to California, Arizona, and Florida, and as far away as Geongju, Korea.

A recent op-ed in The Towson Flyer revealed the cost of five such trips for BCPS Superintendent S. Dallas Dance: nearly $11,000 disclosed after a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request. 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. The overall costs of the superintendent’s taxpayer-reimbursed trips, however, remain unclear.

(See this new update on Dance’s post-BCPS consultant jobs for entities involved with such travel and other edtech ties. The BCPS superintendent’s last official day: June 30. Dance also might soon be visiting a school system near you.)

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, but not necessarily lavish. Yet such costs at BCPS go far beyond one person, and the numbers are larger.

Much, much larger it appears: At least several hundred thousand in taxpayer dollars. Likely in the next year alone.

Recently revealed: In the 2017-18 budget nearly $300,000 in BCPS-confirmed employee travel and related expenses show up under “Other Charges,” just for a few offices and a handful of professional positions mostly under the Office of the Superintendent.

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 the bulk of those offices (and not all even travel),  including the office of the Chief Communications Officer. (Such positions are indicated in the budget under “Professional FTEs” on those pages.)

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 next school year.

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. (See specific questions below. Will update with any info provided).

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.

And there is, after all, this from the previous op-ed: “Overall BCPS employee travel costs, which have been questioned by a few members of the Board of Education, remain unclear. BCPS expenditure databases 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, according to sources familiar with the database.”

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 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 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 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,” (p. 135), confirmed by the admin, again, as “professional dues, conference fees, travel, mileage reimbursement, and other board member expenses.”)

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:

$1.6 million.

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). The total for just these four companies’ contract spending authorities with BCPS: Nearly $30 million, with expansions likely. And that doesn’t even include 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 STAT (Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow) initiative. (That megacontract did go out to bid, though a few board members have questioned the process).

Overall spending and edtech links have been detailed in various op-eds and venues over the past year, revealing costs of nearly $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?

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 spoke at 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?

Perhaps some costs were paid by the event or edtech sponsors, which could raise other ethics issues. (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? 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 several 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 even leave “$33,400 for 167 schools 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.

Specific questions referred to BCPS administrators several weeks ago:

  1. 1. Please detail Other Charges” for the line items and dollar figures cited below in the FY18 budget; are such charges same or similar to above—”travel, mileage, conferences, professional dues?” Please specify for each figure cited.
  2. Would such expenditures also be travel, mileage, conferences, professional dues in FY17 and “FY16 actual,” which are also listed in the budget? Departments/offices listed below are outside of budget pages 141-178 noted in the answer above. Some numbers might be approximate. See budget pages listed:

Chief Academic Officer, p. 223. FY18, see “Other Charges” under ‘categories’

$17,319, $4,000, $3,160

World Languages p. 247 (Passport) FY18, same as above.

$11,650, $62,345

Digital Learning p. 277 FY18,

$26,810, $21,880, $21,758

Executive Director Information Technology p.205, FY18,

$98,185

Executive Director Innovative Learning, p. 274, FY18,

$67,000, $40,000

Innovative Learning Projects, p. 279, FY18,

$14,200, $52,500

Postscript: BCPS stakeholders, keep watching. This is the sort of contract that might show up again before the school board, especially during quiet summer months: “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:

*Discovery Education:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/ADRH6P463371/$file/092716%20RGA-127-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Faculty%20Professional%20Development%20Streaming%20Content%20and%20Related%20Services.pdf

Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL):

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/A9TSUL6984F7/$file/052416%20MWE-813-14%20Modification%20World%20Languages%20Elementary%20Second%20Language.pdf

Dreambox Learning:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AMQQTE6AD435/$file/061317%20JNI-778-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Mathematics%20Supplemental%20Resources.pdf

Curriculum Associates/iReady:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AMQQSX6AC551/$file/061317%20JMI-618-14%20Modification%20-%20Teaching%20Resource%20for%20English%20Language%20Arts.pdf

Code to the Future:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AAHPAZ6197B4/$file/061416%20MBU-525-16%20Computer%20Science%20Immersion.pdf

APEX Learning:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AGDVC970F7A1/$file/122016%20RGA-128-12%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20Online%20Student%20Courses.pdf 

ScholarChip:

http://10ba4283a7fbcc3461c6-31fb5188b09660555a4c2fcc1bea63d9.r13.cf1.rackcdn.com/03/d6869a0dc672eaa5d41cd8231c707cda.pdf?id=231361

McGraw-Hill:

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/MWE-820-14%20BOARD%20EXHIBIT%2010-22-2013.pdf

Daly Computers/Hewlett-Packard reseller:

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/MWE-807-14_Board_Exhibit_03-11-14.pdf

What’s the Status of STAT’s Digital Costs? In a Dozen Years, that Could Be a Billion Dollar Question. Updated.

A year ago, the public first glimpsed the costs of Baltimore County Public Schools’ digital initiative when the “STAT budget” was released. A revised tally is back, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

A guest op-ed by Joanne C. Simpson

A blur of money is spinning around the virtual vortex where our Students and Teachers are supposedly Accessing Tomorrow via STAT. The question: Is this a space-time passage to the future or a budgetary black hole?

The $1.6 billion Baltimore County Public School’s proposed operating budget for next school year was just released—and the cost of the laptop-per-student initiative still remains nearly as opaque as wormholes and astrophysics.

Overall, the schools’  digital initiatives’ scenario seems a mash-up of multimillion-dollar “techbooks,” controversial Spanish-language software, unclear rising expenses, possibly stealth purchasing policies, and interactive projectors that could tap a school’s budget for nearly $6,000—per classroom projector.

The updated BCPS “6-Year Proposed Instructional Digital Conversion Plan” predicts spending on the one-laptop-per-student program at $257 million by 2018-19, including an initial $13 million for wireless network infrastructure and nearly $200 million for students’ and teachers’ laptops. See plan here, p. 11.

At first, it seems the “Total Cost” of the 6-year conversion comes in about $28 million less than last year’s spending projections—mostly because of deleted or redirected millions slated overall for projectors, a project temporarily slowed last year by a school board vote. “Total Annual Costs,” are pegged at $57 million (including $52 million annually just to lease laptops that turn over every four years).

A lowered overall price estimate would seem welcome since STAT, touted as a model for other districts, is one of the costliest and most experimental digital school initiatives in the nation. Recent documents and administration responses, however, reveal the actual price tag is likely higher. Much higher. (See also Postscript below).

BCPS Superintendent S. Dallas Dance has declined to comment for op-eds regarding the digital initiative’s costs, but he downplayed STAT’s financial heft at the Jan. 10 Board of Education meeting when he presented the proposed 2017-18 budget, which requests an 8.5 percent increase—$64 million more—from the county. “To dispel a rumor, STAT has not driven the Baltimore County Public School’s budget,” Dance said, highlighting increased spending on salaries. “I’ll say that one more time: STAT has not contributed to growing budgets.”

Yet concerns about rising costs under the superintendent’s overall Blueprint 2.0 plan clearly remain:

  • Spending authorities* have been approved for contracts worth tens of millions of dollars in digital curricula and related software, mostly beyond the STAT budget—at least $74 million and counting, records show.
  • Costs will likely rise as the student population at 112,000 is expected to increase by more than 6,700 within the decade.
  • And BCPS’ pilots under Blueprint 2.0 are already creating financial woes: more than $4 million has gone out the door on the dysfunctional computer-based ScholarChip ID program alone–mostly for equipment bought, and sitting idle or underused. And this in a school district with many dire needs, and nearly half of its students living at the poverty level.

See these links on When School Dollars Go to Waste, and a similar tech equipment debacle, including maintenance fees on unused equipment and software in Fort Worth, Tx. “Meanwhile, audits regularly find wasted funds at the district level, including one last summer that identified more than $2.7 million in misspent technology funding for schools in Fort Worth, Texas,” notes The Atlantic.

Overall, what exactly has been spent on digital-related curricula, services, hardware, personnel, training, and infrastructure from anywhere in the public school budget—or is slated to be spent? At the current rate, STAT and related costs could approach $1 billion by the first dozen years, sources say. More BCPS transparency would be helpful, yet an external or state legislative audit might be the only way to know for sure.

A school board budget work session, open to the public, is set for Jan. 24 and 31. The overall FY 18 superintendent’s budget will go before the board, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, and the County Council for consideration. As people review this 328-page document (nearly $2 billion including the capital budget), here are a few areas to explore:

How Much is that ‘Tech Book’ in the Window?

Overall, most STAT and related costs are perpetual if BCPS plans to remain a highly digital school district—expenditures that could rise substantially. School districts do need better tech options and wifi, but the scope of what’s going on here seems alarming.

A flurry of digital curricula spending authorities for vendor contracts were approved or expanded by the school board in 2016. For example, Discovery Education ($4 million expanded to $10 million (!) for just two more years); Middlebury Interactive Languages ($7.5 million) for 13 years (a part of the BCPS Blueprint 2.0 plan); and DreamBox Learning, Inc., whose contract would nearly double for just the next 9 months, to $1.2 million. (See contract spending authority links for such vendors below, or at bcps.org.)

Discovery Education’s contract will include “techbooks,” which do seem to offer some cool new options: a blend of text and visual media in different languages, and text-to-speech (read-aloud). Yet students’ laptops are already loaded with some of those services, such as text-to-speech in seven languages via Kurzweil 3000 Firefly.

Costs for “techbooks” gave pause to nearby Montgomery County Public Schools, a larger system with 159,000 students. MCPS is also known as a digital district.

“We clearly as a system are looking at what the possibilities are for the future in terms of digital resources and digital textbooks,” Betsy Brown, MCPS’ director of curriculum, has said. “But we have to consider cost effectiveness, and we also have to examine how current the resources will be.”

Brown told the Gazette: “There are no big savings incentives in making the transition from textbooks to digital tech books.”

MCPS has elected to focus district funds on Discovery Education’s popular video streaming services, at about $260,000 annually since 2014, according to MCPS records.

BCPS, which already had video streaming before the $6 million expansion, has said the “techbooks” would cost less than regular textbooks, yet long-term licensing fees have not been fully disclosed. Here are some struggles other districts have found, especially when they cut paper textbook funding in favor of digital options.

Meanwhile, Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL), the centerpiece of BCPS’ Passport Program, has been a primary element of Blueprint 2.0’s second-language acquisition goal.  This year it expanded to 40 elementary schools, and there are plans to bring the computer-based language program to middle schools as well. MIL also exemplifies ongoing software and other fees. “Once the program is fully expanded to all schools, the anticipated annual fee will be $550,000 each year. The site license cost will be $5,000 per school once 51 schools are attained,” board records show. Software licensing fees, online or cloud subscriptions can increase digital costs to districts.

MIL also has raised controversy elsewhere. Until recently, the computer-based language program partnered with Middlebury College, whose professors staged a revolt and no-confidence vote in 2014 because of quality problems and questions about co-owner K12, Inc,. a troubled online education company. In 2015, the Vermont college sold its 40 percent stake in MIL to the for-profit K12, which is now the sole owner.

Note Dr. S. Dallas Dance’s testimony in company ads for Education Week, and MIL’s website, which features Dance and BCPS in SEVEN separate sites/links for the for-profit company. Google the connections, and see Here. This fledgling software’s $7.5 million contract authority with BCPS goes out 13 years, to 2029 (!).

Numerous other spending authorities for digital curricula or related contracts have been approved or expanded by the school board in the last year, including Curriculum Associates/iReady ($1.2 million); Code to the Future ($1 million); and Apex Learning ($3 million, with $2.5 million for about two more years). The list goes on.

Overall, such big-dollar figures certainly surpass the $1 million slated per year in the STAT budget under Curriculum Resources/client software, some of which is being piloted in schools and set to expand. What will the costs be then? Can these vendor expectations even be met?

Consider other BCPS pilots, like the student lanyard ID program, whose vendor, ScholarChip Card LLC, was paid at least $3.7 million by mid-2016, according to BCPS sources (and now past $4 million, see postscript). Superintendent Dance did a promotional video for ScholarChip as the program launched here in 2014 (among other edtech tie-ins to BCPS vendors, and a recent superintendent ethics violation finding).

ScholarChip is a Pearson Independent Software Vendor.

More than $4 million for a mostly failed pilot? (Students no longer wear the ID lanyards, which were onerous; swipe-in attendance kiosks were sent back or sit idle, and other problems.) Just ask teachers or principals. The original spending authority was for a whopping $10 million; are payments still going out? Does BCPS have this kind of champagne budget? Could other cash-strapped school systems pay for all this? (See a few answers below. In short: $220,000 is still going out every year. Until 2024 (!).

When school board members in September asked how the STAT budget could cover the Discovery Education contract alone, administrators cited funding from other district curriculum coffers. A county audit of last year’s budget noted significant “areas of under-spending” by BCPS, including textbook supplies, special education operational supplies, and transportation professional services.

The Office of the County Auditor wanted to know: “why BCPS has chosen to prioritize this initiative over other competing funding needs.”

Creative Procurement 101

Many of these for-profit companies, meanwhile, are being awarded no-bid contracts under a BCPS curriculum policy, Superintendent Rule 6002 and related. https://www.bcps.org/system/policies_rules/rules/6000series/rule6002.pdf

Under the policy, curricula are evaluated by BCPS staff and others, without ‘requests for proposals’ or other bidding processes. (Discovery Education’s contract also includes professional development services, not just curricula.)

And this despite the fact that no-bid contracts have raised concerns in area school districts and elsewhere. The Maryland Office of Legislative Audits in 2015 also criticized BCPS for a lack of “competitive procurement methods” for various services. BCPS said the district is complying with state laws. https://www.ola.state.md.us/Reports/Schools/BCPS15.pdf

Board-approved “spending authorities” usually mean BCPS could spend up to a listed amount. Dance has pointed out that actual contract costs sometimes come in lower (though many spending authorities return to the board for a vote to expand).

In addition, and possibly more concerning, the superintendent apparently has other sole powers: “Contracts or contract modifications of $500,000 or less may be executed by the Superintendent or his/her designee,” under a BCPS Policy 3215 questioned at the Jan. 10 board meeting. It remains unclear how often this option is used and how.

This all seems to leave the door open for a frightening lack of oversight.

The superintendent does seem savvy at finding money for STAT (which the FY18 budget notes “requires a significant funding commitment”) from various sources, including federal E-rate funds for networking, and a $1.3 million grant to help support STAT—which will run out after next year. With all the financial pressure, the squeeze is on. BCPS internal “redirect” efforts have been noted elsewhere. In the 2015 Maryland State Education Technology Plan, BCPS staff answered survey questions about the district’s tech integration, including: “What are your consistent sources of funding?”

The BCPS response: “Continued cuts and redirects to budgets in all areas of operation within BCPS are impacted.” http://dlslibrary.state.md.us/publications/JCR/2015/2015_98a.pdf

So, again, what are the real costs of STAT, lost opportunities and all?

Overall, there’s lots of uncertainty about “forever costs” for BCPS’ out-in-front digital initiative being watched by districts around the nation, nay the world, as a model for tech in education—despite unknown long-term learning outcomes, high costs, and student measures like BCPS’ 2016 PARCC standardized test scores lower than area counties.

Still, BCPS wins awards for STAT, here, here and here, mostly from edtech industry-supported groups. Regarding one event cited: “The United Nations General Assembly was the backdrop for a keynote address by the BCPS superintendent to schools and global education, business, and technology leaders hosted by Hewlett-Packard,” notes the DILA 2015 Open Door Policy Award, hosted by EdSurge, Inc. and Digital Promise.

BCPS is using Hewlett-Packard tablet/laptops, and Microsoft software, in its classrooms: The spending authority for the HP device contract: $205 million.

How is STAT Going So Far?

First rolled out in Fall 2014, STAT’s $1,400 HP EliteBook Revolve 810s are now in grades K-6th, and 7th in several test schools known as “Lighthouse Schools.” Three high schools are testing the laptops and digital curricula in grades 9-12, including Owings Mills, Chesapeake, and Pikesville, and will continue to pilot STAT next year, Dance said.

A series of evaluations revealing successes and flaws so far have been conducted by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE). Parent responses have been mixed—with some support for the tablet/laptop hybrids and digital learning options, yet ongoing concerns about increased screen time and physical or visual fallout for students, as well as software glitches, increased reliance on computer-embedded assessments, funding and other issues. (See agenda/video under Meetings tab for public comment, Jan 10 meeting.)

One parent noted recently on ABCSchools: Advocates for Baltimore County Schools Facebook public group that it seems BCPS is serving as an example to convince other school districts to “engage in this great experiment that was really all about using the public ed system to research and develop the EdTech products [that] private industry is trying to develop with no knowledge if it all will even work or be beneficial to children.

“And in the meantime we will spend hundreds of millions on STAT which we could have spent on what we already know through research already works. Smaller class sizes, equitable healthy facilities, and we might even give every child in every school free breakfast and lunch.”

With two children in the school system, I share many of the same concerns.

There are other worries. The proposed budget indicates downward trends in student performance, (p.103), including a drop in Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) scores for grade 3 students, from 57 % reading on-grade level in 2013-14, before STAT, to 50 % of third-graders in 2015-16—after all grades 1-3 had the devices.

At the Jan. 10 meeting, Dance emphasized a focus on human capital over tech in the superintendent’s FY 18 budget. “Eighty-three percent of our budget is going to people, with salaries and benefits,” he said. “And we want to make sure we focus on our people.” The budget does includes a 2 percent pay increase for employees “and a plan to hire more than 100 new teachers.” (The district had that many unfilled teaching positions just a couple weeks before school started in the Fall.)

Yet there’s the ongoing 168 teacher/mentor positions to support STAT—with nearly all annual salary costs outside the STAT budget (about $8 million for teachers not assigned to classrooms), an issue raised recently in TABCO teacher association campaigns.

BCPS school board member Kathleen Causey has voiced concerns about high-dollar contracts, purchasing Policy 3215, and opportunity costs: “This is an unprecedented expense for untested curriculum,” Causey said after the meeting, noting that children “need to develop their humanity before we focus on all this intensive data learning.”

Pricey Interactive Projectors: In The House

The Tale of the Interactive Projectors reveals the push-and-pull of trying to create what some term a “digital ecosystem” in a school district whose physical ecosystem is already plagued with crumbling school buildings, brown drinking water, a lack of functioning AC and heat, oft-scarce classroom supplies, and ever-challenging student nutritional needs.

(Transportation woes have been on many parents’ minds, as noted lately in social media. Yet at a school board Building and Contracts Committee meeting that reviewed tire contracts, the issue of using “retread” tires on school buses was discussed. A few board members expressed concerns, but staff said it was “okay,” because recapped tires were being put “on the back wheels.” See contract # ARA-206-16, $1 million.)

For the proposed Boxlight projectors (the administration wanted 6,900 for each classroom-plus), the virtual rug was pulled out when, in February 2016, a contract for $41.4 million (!) was rejected by the school board and sent out to be rebid under different parameters.

Trouble is: The projectors are still being bought, apparently outside board purview.

Individual schools are being told to pick up the tab out of dwindling BCPS allocations. A July 29 superintendent’s weekly bulletin to staff: “School administrators who plan on purchasing projectors in school year 2016-2017 should review the approved projectors.”

The required options, according to BCPS documents: $5,899 with amplified sound system; $4,522 (sans that sound system); and a non-interactive table-top projector and package, $1,051.

Yet schools’ per-student BCPS allocations for instructional materials and supplies—including such projectors—have dropped, nearly 6 percent in elementary schools by FY 15—from $142 per student to $134, a tightening of discretionary purchases to “ensure compatibility with STAT specifications,” notes the 2016 STAT Biannual Conversions Update.

In fact, under STAT “all technology will be fully transitioned to a central budget” by next year, and instructional supplies centralized further (see pp. 83, 118 of the FY 18 budget).

At what cost in the long run? Those interactive projectors for 6,000 or so classrooms would still top $30 million to purchase, and they have a shelf life of 5 or so years. Meanwhile, the Boxlight projectors, which board members and county officials questioned because of high pricing and other issues, are already showing up in BCPS’ new elementary schools. The ‘selected’ projectors also use components by Clinton, the firm whose contract the board turned back. When the issue was raised, administrators said the board never told them not to buy single projectors.

(They might be terrific classroom tools, though comparable or more-established classroom projectors could be purchased for less, experts say. Once a model is bought, there’s pressure to buy that same model for consistent teacher training and compatibility. Either way, some digital services, such as Discovery Education, seem to rely partly on getting them in place pronto.)

School board member Causey brought up the projector discrepancy in comments at the board meeting. “It has come to my attention recently that there is one major contract that somehow has gone awry,” Causey said.

“There is a requirement for schools to choose from one of two or so choices in a new interactive classroom set-up,” she added. But “is that the equipment the board feels is the best use of taxpayer dollars?”

Resistance is Futile?

No matter how the pixels fall, taxpayers—that means us—are the ones footing the Very Big Bill for STAT, the Digital Ecosystem, 24/7 Learning, A Digital Conversion, or whatever this “transformation” might be called. Are we heading down a financially unsustainable path? At this point, I’d call for a state legislative audit to find out.

Among pressing FY 18 budget questions:

  • What constitutes “other instructional costs/contracted services,” which have jumped from $10.6 million in FY 14 to $53.6 million in the proposed budget? (p. 80) That’s a 500 percent increase. (See postscript below.)
  • Which vendors are getting paid an “increase of $6.2 million in one-time expenditures” for “new BCPS curriculum materials.” (p. 69). About $7 million is also listed in the budget of the Chief Academic Officer, who selects curricula for “instructional textbooks & supplies.” (p. 223).

These and other queries were posed to BCPS officials last week, with no answers by the time of this post. Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond’s office has forwarded the questions to county auditors who will review the school budget.

Some responses, and the updated “STAT budget,” can be found in this board Work Session document released 1/24, and in postscripts below.

Yet we still have no tally on superintendent and staff travel expenses for dozens and dozens of conferences to promote STAT. Consider this Jan. 24-27 Future of Education Technology Conference in Orlando, FL, where at least four BCPS staffers, including Ryan Imbriale, executive director of Innovative Learning—and his wife, Jeanne, director of Enterprise Applications—are presenting to school leaders, with such themes as: “Learn the value of utilizing a digital ecosystem in your district.”

In the end, this all seems the tip of the proverbial iceberg (oddly enough, school administrators compare BCPS to the Titanic (see this video, 9 min. 35 sec), apparently since a large school system is hard to turn. Maybe they don’t know what affect that analogy has on concerned parents).

The mid-2016 BCPS STAT Biannual Conversions Update (a story for another day) offers clues to other future costs. Just consider STAT’s projected “Eight Conversions: Curriculum. Instruction. Assessment. Organizational Development. Infrastructure. Policy. Budget. Communications.” Among the policies “revised to align with STAT:” the much-troubled new Grading and Reporting Policy 5210.

Are we converted yet?

Alarms are sounding—at least in my ears. That document, handed to board members, notes: “As we conclude year three, the eight conversions are progressing toward the goal of systemic institutionalization by the year 2018.”

And I’ll say that one more time: Systemic Institutionalization.

Joanne C. Simpson is a former staff writer for The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Johns Hopkins Magazine, as well as a BCPS parent, college educator, and freelance writer based in Baltimore. She can be reached at jcscribe@yahoo.com

Postscript:  2/7/17 — The BCPS Board of Education Votes on the FY 18 Budget

In keeping with getting things on the record, for posterity perhaps, here are a few answers on cost-related questions—and other areas yet to explore. BTW: If one wonders how deep this “digital conversion” goes, consider this tidbit:

BCPS’ 161 school library media specialists are now categorized as “digital learning teachers.”

Probably the most alarming issue in the FY 18 budget: the district is set to spend more than $6 million next year for software license fees not previously discussed publicly, plus millions in other license or site fees not yet determined. That’s apparently on top of $57 million STAT will cost our schools every year. STAT’s overall price tag is indeed closer to $300 million. Just for the first several years.

So, STAT costs are not lower, as the updated “STAT budget” indicates, but higher. Perhaps way higher.

In fact, some items briefly listed in the digital conversion plan also show up big in additional costs tucked elsewhere in the FY 18 budget or approved contracts: “client software,” “license fees,” “staff,” and “network infrastructure upgrades.” Logic would indicate: If they’re STAT/digital costs in the plan, then they’re STAT/digital costs period. (See the op-ed for details and related costs).

Overall, a full audit—both financial and thematic—seems in order. And that would be something to keep in mind for any district with a digital initiative. Because, even after rounds of questions, the amount of money being spent by BCPS, even on specific digital curricula, is mind-numbingly unclear. And we have to wonder why.

For example, expenditures for Discovery Education and Curriculum Associates/iReady next year are listed at different dollar figures in budget materials. (Discovery Education is $196,000 in administration responses, and $536,000 for Discovery Ed’s contracted “techbooks.” For iReady, $223,500 is noted in the budget executive summary, then later it’s $720,000. What’s going on?)

On a more global level, board members recently asked why STAT is crowding out other school needs:

Question: Why did BCPS fund STAT over competing priorities? Hundreds of millions spent on STAT so far while funding for instruction flat. STAT crowding out poverty programs, driver pay increases and critical capital projects to improve student environment.

Answer, sort of: “S.T.A.T. aligns with the BCPS Strategic Plan, Blueprint 2.0, which was approved by the Board. The initiative was evaluated by the Board and funded along with other critical educational priorities.” BCPS noted cost-of-living and other pay increases for drivers and said capital funding is separate. [Though there’s apparently been some crossover with AC funding and other spending, an issue that also needs to be explored].

Overall, everyone needs to question exactly how money is being spent on STAT and similar digital initiatives in other school districts. Because every dollar spent (overspent? misspent?) on the digital initiative and related is a dollar not spent on other school needs. 

And, despite BCPS’ particularly single-minded focus on STAT’s “significant investment,” our board and elected leaders must provide oversight to better meet the needs of our children, such as students facing poverty or too hungry at school to learn, among other challenging issues. A device won’t fix such things. And a pricey-yet-glitchy $1,400 laptop-per-student can’t be equity if the ongoing use of such devices is not even good nor developmentally appropriate for learners as young as seven years old.

Adjustments can be made and advanced tech options still offered. One board member asked why our school system doesn’t follow 3:1 ratios—or a device for every three children—in elementary schools, as Maryland’s education technology plan stipulates. The cost savings would be $13.6 million annually, according to the district, but does not match current STAT instructional plans. (Other digital-minded public school systems, such as Montgomery and Anne Arundel Counties, focus on providing student access to tech, not one-device-per-child in lower grades. They have cited developmental appropriateness and fiscal responsibility concerns. And $13.6 million a year would equal the yearly salaries of more than 220 teachers).

And lastly, from the op-ed, the question about that 500 percent jump under “other instructional costs/contracted services?’ (from $10.6 million in FY 14 to $53.6 million for next year alone.)

The answer: “As articulated in the 6-year Instructional Digital Conversion Plan, this increase is consistent with the roll-out of devices in alignment to the S.T.A.T. strategic plan and instructional software license fees.”

Follow-up question:  “Who are the vendors paid under “other instructional costs/contracted services?” What exactly are these services? What is the list of vendors/providers?”

Answer: “Daly is the primary vendor for 1:1 devices and related services and support. In addition, the largest vendors related to software license fees are Northwest Evaluations, Engrade Inc., Discovery Education, Curriculum Associates, Dreambox, Learnings, [Dreambox Learning] and Creative Enterprise Solutions, which provide services for curriculum, instruction, and assessments.”

Included in that huge $53.6 million figure: “Ongoing software license fees: $4.9 million,” according to recently posted 2/7/17 BCPS responses  to board member questions, an amount not discussed publicly. Hmmm, yet there’s another $1.2 million in software license fees also cited (see below). So what is the grand total amount BCPS is paying each year just in any digital-related license fees—i.e. “forever costs?” 

QUESTION 2: Which vendors and/or costs and services, etc. fall under: “Other Instructional Costs: $1,289,663”?

ANSWER: $1,259,283 will be used for software license fees for programs such as Destiny resource manager, Library Manager, State Standards, Softchalk, Blackboard Web conferencing, and WebPath Express. The remaining funds will be used for equipment, travel and conference fees, professional dues, and miscellaneous contract services for the office of Digital Learning.

(And, btw, is this how they are tucking conference travel costs into various budget line items?)

When asked by a board member in late January: “Is the S.T.A.T. program financially sustainable in the long-run, or are we setting our school system up for a fiscal disaster down the road that different leadership will have to deal with?”

The administration’s assurance: “Yes, the program is sustainable.”

How can that be known? A year ago, the question was asked: What are the true costs of STAT? We know more than we did then, when costs were publicized as $200 million total (the local media still digs no deeper on costs for the experimental program, even when basic BCPS documents themselves cite higher numbers).

Overall, the lack of clarity and transparency in the latest BCPS budget—and in the end how our schools are funded and our children’s needs met—is just one more indicator that few in power want to admit how costly this digital conversion really is.

Postscript:  2/23/17 — Another Note on Why the Money Matters, and ScholarChip Woes

As shown in this op-ed, every dollar spent on STAT or troubled BCPS pilots is a dollar not spent on the many needs that deeply concern parents. For example: What could that $13.6 million annually fund if elementary students simply had one device for every three children, the 3:1 ratio? Here is a personal op-ed from a BCPS school board member on the opportunity costs of STAT, and related.

A bit of the Orwellian glosses over these issues: “Good News Ambassadors in each Lighthouse school are documenting S.T.A.T. through the collection of digital artifacts to share via social media and the Lighthouse Web site.” What about the not-so-good news? A few more specifics on unmet needs that frustrate parents and educators, as noted very frequently on Facebook and other social media:

  • BCPS should pay highly certified teachers and not rely on long-term substitutes;
  • ensure sufficient staffing for small class sizes and efficient bus routes;
  • allow more school discretionary funds for updated classroom books and physical supplies;
  • hire actual teachers for the math Head & Shoulders and other advanced programs;
  • set aside money to meet nutritional needs (free breakfasts would go a long way for those who arrive at school hungry and struggle to concentrate);
  • provide pupil personnel workers to help serve the many students facing poverty;
  • ensure the essential environmental basics of proper heat and AC;
  • pay drivers a competitive wage and keep retread tires off children’s school buses… the list goes on.

Parents out there: compare such priorities to the quality of the software programs our children encounter, Middlebury or iReady, and others that will cost us tens of millions of dollars in the next several years.

Not Yet Exposed — Another detail that reveals just how out-of-whack things seem to be lately:

BCPS has a $1.1 million contract just to pay for laptop cases— another lucrative bonus deal for Hewlett-Packard, provider of the $1,400 HP Revolve 810 G2 laptop/tablets.

Check out the contract below, as well as budget docs that reveal that this $1.1 million was supposed to be spread out until 2021, yet nearly all that money will have flown out the window in just THREE YEARS — at $951,174 by 2018-19, budget documents show. How many children have even seen these million-dollar cases?

A million bucks is also still a million bucks. Again, an outside expert audit of STAT is necessary to find wasteful spending that could instead personally educate, cool, transport, tutor, feed and keep safe our children.

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/MWE-840-15%20Board%20Exhibit%20Final.pdf

And, lastly, (my head is truly spinning by now) here’s the low-down on ScholarChip, the IDs students no longer wear and the kiosks that have been mostly sent back. (The latest Fall bi-annual conversions report notes yet another planned “picture-based attendance” system for students.) The cost deets from BCPS administration responses on the $4 million-plus fiasco:

QUESTION: “The student lanyard ID program, whose vendor, ScholarChip Card LLC, was paid at least $3.7 million by mid-2016, according to sources. The original spending authority for these ID cards was $10 million. Explain the current status of ScholarChip? What has happened in terms of usage, software integration, kiosk issues, and later payments? Are payments still being made currently to this vendor, and why?”

ANSWER: “BCPS has purchased all equipment and implemented the One-card system ($2.4M in FY 2014 and $1.6M in FY 2016). BCPS chose not to pursue the attendance module for students.” The annual costs to be paid to ScholarChip for a “data center license” (more license fees!) and “hardware maintenance” (for what exactly?)

$212,000 a year.

Every year. Ongoing until 2024. Should we consider any of that money–our money, taxpayer money–well spent on pieces of plastic, hung on strings?

— JCS

——

Also, a version of this op-ed on STAT costs was featured on the national education blog Nancy Bailey’s Education Website: Revive, Rally and Recover Public Schools

*Discovery Education:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/ADRH6P463371/$file/092716%20RGA-127-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Faculty%20Professional%20Development%20Streaming%20Content%20and%20Related%20Services.pdf

Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL):

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/A9TSUL6984F7/$file/052416%20MWE-813-14%20Modification%20World%20Languages%20Elementary%20Second%20Language.pdf

Dreambox Learning:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AANHDY47D60B/$file/061416%20JNI-778-14%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20-%20Mathematics%20Supplemental%20Resources.pdf

Curriculum Associates/iReady:

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/071216%20JMI-618-14%20Modification%20-%20Teaching%20Resource%20for%20English%20Language%20Arts.pdf

Code to the Future:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AAHPAZ6197B4/$file/061416%20MBU-525-16%20Computer%20Science%20Immersion.pdf

APEX Learning:

http://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/bcps/Board.nsf/files/AGDVC970F7A1/$file/122016%20RGA-128-12%20Modification%20and%20Extension%20Online%20Student%20Courses.pdf

ScholarChip:

http://10ba4283a7fbcc3461c6-31fb5188b09660555a4c2fcc1bea63d9.r13.cf1.rackcdn.com/03/d6869a0dc672eaa5d41cd8231c707cda.pdf?id=231361

Daly Computers/Hewlett-Packard reseller:

https://www.bcps.org/apps/bcpscontracts/contractFiles/MWE-807-14_Board_Exhibit_03-11-14.pdf