State officials want review of Baltimore County school leaders' ties to tech firms

A Maryland lawmaker has called for an investigation and audit of the Baltimore County school system’s purchasing of digital devices and software after reports that administrators were working as paid consultants for a company that represents education technology firms.

State Sen. Jim Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, has asked the Maryland Department of Education and state school board to investigate all contracts related to a technology initiative, launched four years ago, that is expected to cost the school district more than $200 million.

The Baltimore County school board is set to begin considering new contracts next month.

“It falls to the state to provide oversight as recent questionable decisions of the school system and the failures of the Baltimore County Board of Education have come to light,” Brochin wrote in a letter to state education officials. “To ensure that citizens of Baltimore County have continued confidence in our school system, we must provide a transparent and responsible state investigation and audit.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Thursday education officials need to consider Brochin’s call for increased oversight of the contracts and the paid consulting fees that interim superintendent Verletta White and former superintendent Dallas Dance received from a company that brokers private meetings between tech companies and school administrators.

The state school board responded in a statement saying it “is in the process of reviewing the information” and will make decisions about audits or other appropriate steps at its next meeting Dec. 5.

The Baltimore Sun reported Wednesday that White failed to disclose the payments she has received since 2013 as a consultant for the Education Research & Development Institute. Dance also did not disclose any payments until after he announced his resignation in April.

“If these things are really happening, it’s outrageous and we need to get to the bottom of it,” said Hogan, who as governor appoints members of the county school board.

Of Brochin’s call for an audit, Hogan said, “It’s probably something we need to consider.”

Another state lawmaker, Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, said he intends to file a complaint against White with the school system’s ethics panel. A similar complaint he filed in 2013 against Dance resulted in the panel reprimanding the former superintendent for failing to disclose consulting work for another company.

“I’m going to file another complaint. They need to be held accountable,” McDonough said. “The school board people have dismissed” White’s actions, he said.

McDonough and Brochin are running for county executive in next year’s election.

In his letter, Brochin said he is concerned about reports of “digital education companies having unrestricted access to key decision makers in Baltimore County Public Schools and in turn, the awarding of contracts to those companies.”

The county school board, he said, “failed to adequately scrutinize the relationships between the vendor-driven organizations and BCPS administrators,”

Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, also questioned the county board’s oversight.

“Disclosure is the fundamental element for our ethics laws at every level of government,” Marks said. “Many of us were hoping that these controversies had ended with the appointment of the interim superintendent. There are many good things occurring in our school system, but right now, it is imperative for the Board of Education to restore trust and accountability.”

But county Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, said he continues to “respect” and support White because the consulting job was not with a company that held a school contract and she can fix the mistake by amending her disclosure forms.

“I have a lot of confidence in her,” Jones said. “This doesn’t change my opinion of her at all.”

And Tom DeHart, executive director of the union representing county school administrators, said he still has “complete confidence” in White.

White may have made a mistake in filling out financial disclosure forms, DeHart said, but if she corrects them, “I feel that it does not overly concern me.”

The Sun reported Wednesday that White worked as a paid consultant for a company that promotes education technology firms without disclosing the payments to the school system or the public. She repeatedly filed disclosure forms stating she earned no outside income while working as the school system’s chief academic officer, the position she held from 2013 until she was named interim superintendent this year.

White estimated in an interview that she made about $3,000 a year as a consultant for Education Research & Development Institute, or ERDI. The Chicago-based firm provides all-expense-paid trips twice a year to conferences at which superintendents serve on three-hour private panels with education technology companies to review their products.

White acknowledged she made a “mistake” by not disclosing the payments. School officials are required to file forms annually reporting if they earned any income beyond their official jobs.

In an email she sent Thursday to school system employees, she promised to amend her disclosure forms to include the consulting job.

But she said getting paid by ERDI was not a conflict of interest because the company, though it represents technology firms, does not itself hold any district contracts.

“I will not allow an honest oversight to be misconstrued as something untoward or unethical,” she wrote.

She said Dance, as her supervisor, knew of the position and had encouraged her to participate in ERDI sessions to provide education technology companies feedback.

Dance “recommended and approved my participation in these opportunities,” she wrote in the email. “Sales are not involved in this process. This process is purely for feedback."

McDonough filed an ethics complaint against Dance in December 2013. He raised questions about a different consulting job that required the superintendent to travel to Chicago to train principals. In response, the school ethics panel ruled that Dance violated the ethics code by taking the job with a company that does business with the school system.

Dance’s connection to the now-defunct SUPES Academy is being investigated by the Maryland State Prosecutor’s office, several sources have told The Sun.

McDonough said the school ethics panel should be able to conduct its own reviews.

“It should be mandatory that anytime something like this happens there must be an ethics review,” he said. “It can’t be left up to the board.”

William Groth, a county resident who last year filed a successful ethics complaint against Dance for holding a university teaching job he did not disclose, said Thursday the school system “is facing a crisis of ethics.”

Groth, a former school system administrator, said the school board has failed to hold Dance and White accountable for their actions.

“There is a big chunk of that board that doesn’t understand its purpose,” Groth said.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/dougdonovan

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
54°