Ethics complaint filed against Baltimore County school superintendent Verletta White

A Baltimore County parent has filed a complaint with the school district’s ethics panel alleging that interim Superintendent Verletta White violated rules requiring school officials to report outside income and prohibiting them from accepting certain gifts.

Heather Bergan, who has two children in public schools in Perry Hall, emailed a six-page complaint to the ethics panel this week.

“The board needs to know that the public cares about this issue,” Bergan said.

The ethics panel is required to review such complaints. It can either dismiss the complaint or hold a hearing with White if it finds a violation. White can avoid a hearing by offering a “settlement or cure,” including amending her financial disclosure forms filed with the panel to include income she has earned from consulting work.

The complaint comes days before the Baltimore County school board is scheduled to meet Tuesday. Board chairman Edward J. Gillis said he and other members may meet privately before then to discuss ethics issues associated with White’s consulting work.

The Baltimore Sun reported last week that for four years, White worked as a consultant for a company that promotes education technology firms without disclosing the payments to the school system or the public.

White repeatedly filed required county 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. But she has acknowledged that from 2013 to last year, she worked as a consultant for Chicago-based Education Research & Development Institute.

She was paid about $3,000 a year to attend twice-a-year conferences where she provided feedback to education technology companies -- clients of ERDI — that sell products to school districts.

In an email White sent last week to school system employees, she said failing to disclose the income was an “honest mistake” but did not amount to a conflict of interest because ERDI itself does not hold school system contracts.

“When I completed these forms, I was under the impression that I was to only list companies with whom the school system had a contract or a pending contract. I was mistaken,” she wrote. “I will amend them as allowed by policies. I promise each of you that I will not make that mistake again, but more importantly, I will not allow an honest oversight to be misconstrued as something untoward or unethical.”

Former superintendent Dallas Dance was also a consultant for ERDI from 2014 through spring of this year, according to company executives. Dance did not report being paid by the firm in 2014 and 2015, school system records show. He did report income received in 2016 on a form filed April 30 of this year — two weeks after he announced his resignation from the school district.

The ethics panel ruled twice before that Dance violated the ethics code for failing to report outside income, including from a job with a company — SUPES Academy — that held a contract with the school system. In both cases, the school board did not impose any penalties against Dance after he amended his disclosure forms and gave up the paid position.

Bergan called that outcome a "slap on the wrist.”

“Requiring someone to do what they should have done in the first place is not a deterrent, it is an incentive,” her complaint states. “Given that Ms. White’s predecessor was found to be in violation on two counts just one year ago for similar financial non-disclosure, it stands to reason that Ms. White should have been well aware of her own possible violation and thus had ample time to have corrected her financial disclosure forms over the past year.”

Bergan’s complaint alleges that White violated the ethics code by failing to disclose the ERDI income and a general provision that advises school officials to avoid “even the appearance of improper influence.” The complaint also states White violated a conflicts-of-interest provision that prohibits school officials from participating in “any matter” with businesses that have overlapping financial interests with companies that have school contracts.

ERDI does not have a contract with Baltimore County Public Schools. But it sets up meetings between superintendents and companies that either do hold contracts or are seeking them.

That ethics clause, Bergan alleges in the complaint, “describes the middleman nature of ERDI.” The company paid White to advise education technology companies that pay ERDI for access to superintendents. Some of ERDI’s clients have contracts with the county school system.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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