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Baltimore County senators want a more extensive audit of school system

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Some Baltimore County senators are calling for an extensive new audit to review millions of dollars of education technology contracts, as well as the relationships between county school system administrators and vendors over the past several years.

At a meeting in Annapolis Friday with school system leaders, several county senators said they believe a much broader examination of the system’s purchasing is needed than one currently planned by the school board and Interim Superintendent Verletta White.

Sen. James Brochin, a Democrat running for county executive, said he wants to put all the issues on the table and let an auditor decide whether the county is doing business the right way. He said he believed a majority of senators will support an audit to be sure the school system’s operations are “above board.”

“You need to bring respect back to this jurisdiction,” Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Republican, told White and school board chair Edward Gilliss as he urged the more extensive audit. “I know it may cost the county some money. In extreme times you have to take extreme measures.”

The quality of the schools drives home prices and is a catalyst for economic development, Jennings said.

Concern about consulting work and the way contracts are approved has intensified since a Baltimore County grand jury charged former Superintendent Dallas Dance on Tuesday with four counts of perjury for failing to disclose what the Maryland State Prosecutor’s office said was nearly $147,000 of income he earned as a private consultant. Some of the payments came from the Chicago-based Education Research & Development Institute, a company that represents education technology firms that have won millions of dollars in no-bid contracts with the school system.

ERDI, sets up private, three-hour meetings at conferences between its corporate clients and its paid roster of consulting superintendents — which for years has included Dance and White. White was a paid ERDI consultant for four years and failed to report the payments on required disclosure forms, The Baltimore Sun reported in November. She acknowledged to The Sun being paid nearly $3,000 per year to attend ERDI’s private sessions with education technology companies in various cities.

White has said she did not think she had to report the payments because ERDI itself was not doing business with the school system. She has not been charged with any crime.

Brochin called the audit he’s seeking “a way to move forward, a way to take a look at the ERDI relationship with Baltimore County.” He said Gilliss had told him in a private conversation that he would support the audit request.

But Gilliss told The Sun only that he thought the conversation with senators had gone well, and would not commit to a new audit. “Renewing confidence in the system is the priority, and the system looks forward to joining the delegation in ensuring that this goal is achieved,” Gilliss said. He noted a majority of the school board would have to agree to a new audit.

White said she would do what her board directed. “There is nothing to hide, so I would be open to any kind of audit,” she said. “We will do what we need to do to restore public trust.”

In December, after The Sun reported that Dance had traveled widely across the country at county taxpayer expense to conferences, some of which involved education technology companies, four members of the school board asked state education officials to intervene and do an outside audit. They said an audit that White had initiated in September wasn’t satisfactory. Instead, they sought an audit that covered all of the years Dance was superintendent from 2012 through 2017, an evaluation of the choice of the vendor for $205 million in laptop computers, and an examination of the relationship between the school system and education technology vendors, among other details.

The state school board said they would do an audit only if the county paid for it and if a majority of the board, or county leaders such as County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, requested it.

Kamenetz said he didn’t believe such an audit was needed, and a majority of the school board did not support the minority view.

After a discussion with state officials in the fall, however, White did expand the audit to cover more years, beginning it in 2014. Brochin is suggesting the new audit should include everything the minority members requested so that all of their questions are answered.

At Friday’s meeting, White defended her record, saying she has acted ethically throughout her career in the county school system. She attempted to distance herself from Dance, saying she never intended to mislead the public.

White said she had misunderstood how to fill out the financial disclosure reports but has now amended them to be correct. She said the ethics panel has told her they believe the forms are confusing and need to be clarified.

“There has never been any intention to willfully mislead anyone,” she said.

She described ERDI conferences as focus group sessions rather than a chance for education technology vendors to make a sales pitch.

“I haven’t done anything wrong,” said White, who is fighting to be named the permanent superintendent when her one-year interim stint ends in June.

Numerous county leaders have begun to call for more scrutiny and a new audit in the last several days. State Del. Christian Miele, a Republican representing the county, said he has gotten 550 signatures from county residents to support an audit.

Brochin said he will bring the issue to a vote of the delegation next week.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lizbowie

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