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Young, hip and charismatic, Dallas Dance was 'hero' to many when he led Baltimore County schools

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Dallas Dance was the bright, tech-savvy leader beloved by students and praised by county leaders.

In his five years as superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, he led an overhaul of the curriculum, launched an effort to give a laptop computer to each student in the district and started teaching Spanish to elementary students.

By 2017, he had closed the gap in graduation rates between black and white students, a rare achievement in education. Dance also became known for his immaculate appearance — he favored the three-piece suit — his warm demeanor and his rapid-fire speech.

Few educators become superintendents of large school systems in their 30s. Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, called Dance a young star.

“He was an articulate, charismatic young leader who showed a great deal of promise,” Domenech said.

Now Dance, 37, faces the prospect of months or years in prison. He pleaded guilty Thursday to four counts of perjury for concealing payments he earned from consulting jobs while serving as superintendent, including $90,000 from a company he helped win a no-bid contract with the school system. He will be sentenced on April 20th, his birthday.

Dance barely spoke during the court appearance, only answering “Yes, your honor” or “No, Ma’am” to questions from Baltimore County Circuit Judge Kathleen Cox. He spent most of the hour long proceeding silently reading along as Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt read to the court a statement of facts. It detailed how Dance had lied to school officials about his relationship with SUPES Academy, the company that paid him $90,000.

He once begged a SUPES official not to inform the school system he was being paid, saying he “might as well kill himself” if people found out, the statement said.

In leading the county’s schools, Dance often spoke of his mission to provide opportunities to children, especially African-American children. As a black teenager growing up in Richmond, he has said, he felt teachers didn’t always see his potential. He wanted to ensure all students, including black boys, had equal access to a high-quality education.

He launched his laptop program in part to reduce the achievement gaps between children from families who could afford computers at home and those from families who couldn’t. He redesigned the way teachers delivered their lessons to take advantage of the devices.

The effort brought him fame in national education circles.

Dallas Dance pleads guilty: statement of facts from Maryland prosecutor »

“In public education, we are all sort of desperately hoping for heroes to show up,” Hal Friedlander, the CEO of a nonprofit that provides information and support for school systems evaluating technology products, said before Dance was indicted in January. “He appeared to be a candidate for hero.”

Dance got along well with different constituencies: students, parents, state legislators, the business community, county leaders. He revamped the communications department and produced videos promoting the school system. He texted, tweeted and shared personal mottoes on Instagram. His Twitter following grew to more than 30,000. (By contrast, his successor, interim Superintendent Verletta White, has slightly more than 3,000.)

People who had felt shut out of the school administration were now able to connect directly with the superintendent. And he became a role model for students.

“People dressed up as Dr. Dance for Halloween,” former school board member Marisol Johnson said. “They really thought he was cool.”

He kept an iPad in his pocket.

“He was hip,” Johnson said. “He got on the students’ level. He would squat down to talk to the little kids.”

When Dance appeared before the County Council last year to present his final school budget proposal, he won praise from County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and the council.

Dance also had his stumbles.

In a county that was once known for its curriculum writers, he bucked tradition and hired an outside company in 2013 to rewrite the elementary school language arts curriculum to align it with the Common Core standards.

When school officials believed the company wasn’t delivering the curriculum on schedule, the system pulled out of the contract. But it was too late — the lessons had to be in teachers’ hands in months.

Dance went back to his teachers to do the rewrite, but they didn’t have enough time to complete the work, and the rollout was flawed. Teachers were forced to spend hours trying to access the curriculum online. They filed a grievance, and Dance wrote a public letter of apology.

He said the system was “building the plane as we fly it.”

His decision to change high school schedules for the sake of uniformity drew the ire of parents. Hundreds of Hereford High parents crowded one school board meeting. They rang cow bells in protest, drowning out board members.

One of the leaders of the campaign against the new schedules, Kathleen Causey, now sits on the board.

David Uhlfelder, a board member who often supported Dance, believed that in the superintendent’s most important job — to convince the county executive and county council to come up with the money to fund the system — Dance performed well.

“I just had a lot of respect for him,” Uhlfelder said.

In 2015, three years into his four-year contract, Dance pushed for and got a four-year extension. The job would pay $1.1 million over the length of the extension. Dance earned $287,000 in the first year of that contract — his last as superintendent.

In hiring Dance in 2012, the school board took a chance on youth after 13 years under Superintendent Joe Hairston.

Critics said Hairston refused to compromise or communicate. Dance, then 32, stood in bold contrast. Bright and in a hurry, he had hopped from one job in education to another in a straight line to the top office. He touched down in Richmond, Henrico County, Va., and Houston, staying just two years at each stop — long enough to gain experience before moving on and up.

Dance moved so quickly through the ranks that when he landed in Baltimore County, he didn’t have enough years of teaching to qualify for the superintendent job under Maryland law. The school board sought a waiver from the state school superintendent to hire him.

Dance embraced technology that overwhelmed older superintendents. He became a symbol — the new progressive superintendent, and a highly sought speaker.

Dance traveled to technology conferences and participated in education leadership groups. In 2016, he spent more than a third of the school calendar out of the district, public records show. He visited 19 cities in 13 states at a cost to taxpayers of tens of thousands of dollars.

The travel, which was approved by a succession of school board chairmen, was far more extensive than that of other superintendents in the region.

Dance returned to the Richmond area in July, where he would be closer to a young son, Myles. The boy, just a toddler in 2012, had come dressed in a seersucker suit to Dance’s his first appearance in the school system in 2012.

Dance published a book this year about educational leadership. “Deliberate Excellence,” which sells for $21 on Amazon, received blurbs from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, president Freeman Hrabowski and former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Hrabowski said Dance had “demonstrated the power of enlightened leadership to change schools.”

Duncan called him “a bold and innovative educational leader.”

Johnson, the former school board member, said Dance brought positive attention to the county.

“We were flying so close to the sun, being talked about through the country,” she said.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lizbowie

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