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Lawmakers call for ethics review of Baltimore County school board, officials

Six Maryland lawmakers on Thursday called for establishing an annual ethics review of Baltimore County school officials to help them flag potential conflicts of interest — a process they say could “restore confidence” in the system following the criminal charges filed against former superintendent Dallas Dance.

The six Baltimore County senators who signed the Feb. 8 letter sent to interim Superintendent Verletta White also requested that she and the school board expand a pending audit of district contracts to examine work awarded to firms affiliated with professional organizations that have paid White and Dance as consultants.

The request came a day before White is scheduled to meet in Annapolis with the county’s delegation in the House of Delegates, which is expected to also raise questions about no-bid contracts and potential conflicts of interest raised by Dance’s indictment last month.

A Baltimore County grand jury indicted Dance on four counts of perjury for failing to disclose what the Maryland State Prosecutor’s office says was nearly $147,000 in consulting income Dance earned while superintendent. Dance, who left his job in June, and other district executives are required by ethics rules to disclose all outside income to assure the public that their financial affairs do not present possible conflicts of interest.

“We urge the Baltimore County School Board and its Superintendent to immediately impose a mandatory annual ethics review for all school board members, the Superintendent, and all senior staff that can be in a position to have potential conflicts of interests,” the letter states.

It was signed by the majority of the county’s senate delegation: Sens. James Brochin, J.B. Jennings, Katherine Klausmeier, Edward Kasemeyer, Johnny Ray Salling and Robert Zirkin. Only Sens. Delores Kelley and Shirley Nathan-Pulliam did not sign the letter.

The delegation met with White late last month to question her about her own consulting work and the continuing audit of district purchasing.

“My name is not on the letter because I refused to sign it,” Nathan-Pulliam said. “I refused to sign it because in the meeting [with White] I heard that these types of audits had been done already.”

The recommendations of her fellow senators could result in multiple separate audits dating to 2012 that could cost the county $177,000 per review.

“If it’s already been done then it’s a waste of taxpayer money that should be going back into the schools,” she said.

Brochin said the school officials should be subjected to the same confidential meeting that state lawmakers go through with ethics officials to determine if any of their private employment and investments present the possibility of conflicts.

“You find out what may raise a red flag and you fix it,” Brochin said. “There is no reason why they shouldn’t do the same thing.”

The Baltimore Sun reported in November that Dance worked as a consultant for a company representing education technology firms without notifying the county school board of the payments. Some of those firms won no-bid contracts with the school system. His failure to report his consulting pay from the company — Education Research & Development Institute, or ERDI — on forms he signed under penalty of perjury is part of the basis for the charges against him.

White also worked as an ERDI consultant for four years without disclosing the payments to the school system or the public. She repeatedly filed county disclosure forms, also under penalty of perjury, stating she earned no outside income while working as the school system’s chief academic officer from 2013 until she was named interim superintendent last year. She later apologized to the school system and pledged not to accept payments for outside work. White is not charged with any crime.

The Sun also reported that Dance traveled extensively while superintendent to attend conferences put on by various organizations, including ERDI, International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), Center for Digital Education and Digital Promise.

The senators have requested that a pending audit being conducted of district spending be formally expanded to examine any contractors that are also affiliated with those specific organizations.

“We are hopeful that this type of independent audit will put all outstanding concerns to rest and allow the Baltimore County School System to move forward with the confidence of its citizens,” the senators’ letter states.

The letter recommends that the audit include a “comprehensive review” of contracts over $1 million, all education technology deals, all no-bid work and other awards authorized by contracts signed by other school districts — a permissible process known as piggybacking.

The senators are seeking more information about which professional organizations school officials belong to, especially if they are paid for their participation and travel to events that include perks such as meals and entertainment. The lawmakers want the audit to include details about dates and locations of such events and any expenses paid by the organizations.

ERDI pays superintendents to serve as consultants on three-hour, closed-door panels with education technology companies that also pay ERDI.

David Sundstrom, president and general counsel for ERDI, said in a letter to The Sun that the company’s business plan has been misconstrued by the media.

“There are no ‘secret’ meetings, and no one-on-one sessions of any sort,” Sundstrom wrote. “The education leaders who sit on 5-member panels and provide this criticism and feedback are offered a modest honorarium for their time and expertise.

“Mr. Dance is alleged to have failed to report his receipt of a total of $4,608 over a period of years for his occasional research participation at ERDI. If true, his failure is inexplicable to us,” he wrote. “Equally as mystifying is the printed implication that his periodic participation in ERDI research constituted nothing more than some sort of quid pro quo, or some sort of unscrupulous/dishonorable act. It was neither.”

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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