Former Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance spent more than a third of the school days in 2016 traveling to out-of-state education conferences at a cost of tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, public records show.
During his five-year tenure, Dance hopscotched from city to city and coast to coast, traveling far more often than other superintendents in the region, according to records obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Maryland Public Information Act request. Dance made the trips with the approval of a series of county school board chairs.
At many stops — from New Orleans to New York, Miami to San Diego — Dance gave speeches touting his initiative to give all students in Baltimore County laptops. In one case, an event sponsor paid Dance $5,000 for a speech, compensation he did not report on financial disclosure forms, according to other records. The school system’s ethics panel twice reprimanded Dance for failing to disclose other part-time work.
The Maryland State Prosecutor is investigating Dance in connection with his consulting work for a company that did business with the school system, The Sun reported last month. It is unclear whether Dance’s out-of-state travel and professional commitments are part of the investigation.
In 2016 alone, Dance visited 19 cities in 13 states, The Sun’s analysis of thousands of pages of travel records, credit card receipts, expense reports and emails found.
Dance’s travel did not require votes by the county school board at its twice-monthly meetings and the extent of his travel was not widely known, according to parents and teachers. Parents, teachers and administrators interviewed by The Sun disagreed about whether the traveling distracted Dance from his responsibility of running one of Maryland’s largest school districts.
School board members said they were aware Dance traveled but always knew where he was. He was always available by phone, they said, and in the age of texting, emails and phone calls, his physical location was unimportant.
“The man has prominence. The man was in demand,” said David Uhlfelder, a board member who as chairman for the 2014-15 school year signed off on Dance’s travel. “I am willing to support his travel based on … the positive recognition our school system has received as a result of him representing us.”
But Nancy S. Grasmick, a former Baltimore County schools administrator who was Maryland’s superintendent of schools for two decades, saw the amount of travel as problematic.
“If there is absentee leadership, that can have a negative impact on the system as a whole,” Grasmick said. “Leadership of the school system matters in terms of the direction and the day to day work.”
School board member Ann Miller, a frequent critic of Dance, said the board failed in its oversight role by allowing him to travel so frequently.
“Ultimately, the buck stops with the board,” Miller said. “Many of the issues with Dr. Dance’s travel, speaking engagements, outside work, and relationships with ed-tech companies could have and should have been addressed in his employment contract upon renewal” in July 2016.
And some parents expressed concern.
“It is disconcerting. He was away on time that should have been devoted to the school system,” county PTA president Jayne Lee said last week. “We paid for his time. What did the school system and the school children get back for his time?”
Dance announced his resignation from the school district on April 18 and left his position at the end of June, with three years remaining on his $287,000-a-year contract. Sources have told The Sun Dance was under investigation by the State Prosecutor at the time.
Neither Dance nor his attorneys responded to requests for comment for this article.
As a young, digitally savvy superintendent at a time when districts across the country were embracing classroom technology, Dance was a sought-after speaker and conference participant. He convinced the county school board to approve a $200 million contract in March 2014 to give each county student a laptop, and to introduce a new way of teaching to complement the use of technology. He was often invited to speak at education technology conferences about the digital rollout, and about his effort to guarantee access to computers equally among all students.
“He was one of a small number of superstar superintendents who had a clear voice around all the issues regarding equity in education,” said Hal Friedlander, former head of technology for the New York City public schools.
Dance’s frequent trips around the country helped build his national reputation, and put him in frequent contact with technology company executives. At the time, the county school system was spending hundreds of millions of dollars on technology — not just laptops, but printers, educational software and electronic identification cards for all students and staff.
Uhlfelder said board members were emailed a weekly schedule each Friday that detailed each event and meeting Dance attended.
From January 2015 through March of 2017, Dance charged the school system for at least $40,000 on out-of-state travel, according to receipts, credit card statements, and other records reviewed by The Sun.
In other cases, the travel was paid by the organizers of the conferences or meetings. A national school superintendents association, the College Board and the International Society for Technology in Education all paid his expenses to attend their events, school system officials said.
Former school board chairman Charles McDaniels said Dance was more visible in the school district than previous superintendents. Dance attended every high school graduation and shook every graduate’s hand, McDaniels said. He was well known by students, and he attended all school board meetings.
In October 2016, Dance’s busiest travel month, the superintendent was out of the county for two-thirds of all school days. He traveled to Boston to speak about his digital initiative at an education technology conference and to New Orleans as part of the Center for Digital Education’s effort to pair superintendents with education technology executives.
He also participated in education panels sponsored by the White House, Microsoft and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Dance’s travel far outpaced that of his peers in similar districts.
Baltimore City Superintendent Sonja Santelises made 14 out-of-state trips during the 2016-2017 school year, according to school system records. Prince George’s County Superintendent Kevin Maxwell made five trips during that time. Dance, in contrast, made 27 trips during the 2016-2017 academic year.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, whose administration provides most of the county’s school system’s $1.6 billion budget, made one out-of-state trip on county government business in 2016.
Verletta White, Dance’s chief academic officer, is now interim superintendent. In a statement, the school system said White “plans to limit travel outside the school system in order to visit all schools and to personally meet students, teachers and school system staff.”
Tom DeHart, executive director of the union that represents county administrators, said principals and other managers knew of Dance’s travel. He said he thinks it is logical to believe the travel affected the superintendent’s performance. Being away more than a third of the time “probably is not healthy for any organization,” DeHart said.
Dance’s trips were often quick. He would board an Amtrak train before 6 a.m., arrive in New York before 9 a.m. and be back on a train headed south by noon.
He sometimes flew a long way for a short trip. On July 30, 2015, he flew to San Luis Obispo, Calif., arriving in time to give a talk at a conference for 20 superintendents interested in technology. After the talk, there was a gala evening reception on the grounds of the Hearst Castle. Less than 24 hours later after he arrived, Dance flew back to Baltimore.
In the first three months of 2017 Dance traveled to Austin, New Orleans, Denver, Providence, and Alexandria and Arlington, Va.
The State Prosecutor’s Office has been investigating Dance’s involvement with SUPES Academy, a now-defunct company that trained principals in school districts across the country, including Baltimore County. No one has been charged in connection with the investigation.
Baltimore County school ethics officials ruled in 2014 that Dance had violated ethics rules by taking a part-time job with SUPES after the company got an $875,000 contract with the school system. State legislative auditors later faulted the school system for not seeking a competitive bid before hiring the company.
The ethics officials again reprimanded Dance last November, ruling that he had violated financial disclosure rules by not reporting the pay he received as an adjunct professor at the University of Richmond and for not reporting he had created a limited-liability corporation in 2012.
Dance received compensation for two of his out-of-state appearances, reporting only one of them, according to The Sun’s investigation.
In 2015 Dance submitted a $5,768 bill to the Richland County School District in South Carolina.
“Service rendered: Training and keynote speaker for the leadership team of Richland County School District,” states the invoice sent on Dance’s letterhead. Dance charged the South Carolina school district a $5,000 honorarium and $768 for travel expenses. The payments were not reported to the county.
And ERDI, also called Education Research & Development Institute, confirmed that it paid Dance as a consultant. The Chicago corporation facilitates meetings between its education technology company clients and superintendents from across the country. Several of ERDI's clients — Discovery Education, Dreambox, Code To The Future — have contracts with the Baltimore County school system.
“Dr. Dance periodically served as a consultant to our institute; he has not done so, however, since Spring 2017,” said Mike Hubbard, ERDI executive director.
Dance reported in his April 30, 2017 disclosure form that that he was paid by Dulle Enterprises of Illinois. Hubbard said that was a previous name used by ERDI.