Verletta White faces numerous challenges as new Baltimore County schools chief

Verletta White has won the job she fought so hard for: a four-year contract to be the next Baltimore County schools superintendent that makes her the first woman to lead the nation’s 25th largest school district.

Now comes the hard part, say educators and community members.

She has strong support among administrators and some in the community, but she also faces a divided school board, politicians who wanted a different choice, and skeptics concerned about her ethical lapses who wonder if she was too close to the the former superintendent, Dallas Dance, who is to be sentenced Friday after pleading guilty last month to four counts of perjury

The role of superintendent is already “one of the toughest jobs in the country,” said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. But White, he said, is in an especially difficult spot, given the tarnished legacy of her predecessor and the challenges of working with a divided school board.

“She almost has to think of herself as a politician running for office going out there to try and get the vote,” Domenech said. “She has to shake hands, kiss babies and do all the things that have to be done so that she’s visible and can answer people’s questions and earn their trust.”

Members of the community remain deeply divided about the school board’s decision Tuesday night to hire White. Some worry that a contentious and unconventional selection process will cast a shadow on her administration moving forward.

“There’s obviously some healing that has to happen in our county,” said Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.

White, through the county schools spokesperson, declined to be interviewed.

Supporters of White, who has served as interim superintendent for the past nine months, cheered after the board voted 8-4 Tuesday to offer her the job. She represents homegrown talent: She attended county schools, and then rose through the system’s ranks from teacher to chief academic officer and now top administrator.

But a vocal group of parents, politicians and board members are concerned that the school board rushed its vote and picked a leader who has drawn scrutiny for ethics violations. The school board’s ethics panel found in February that White violated ethics rules twice.

Two weeks before the board voted to hire White, members decided to spend $75,000 to hire a firm to conduct a national search. Because this national search never took place, some said, questions remain about whether White is the best person for the job — or whether someone else would have been be better suited.

Board member Roger Hayden voted against hiring White.

“It was really pretty simple,” he said. “We had not done our homework.”

Another dissenter, Julie Henn, said the body failed to be transparent about the search process. The board had a full year to do its “due diligence,” she said, but didn’t take the necessary steps.

Tom DeHart, executive director of the county school system’s administrators union, believes White will be able to repair some of the trust.

“I think Verletta is very good at building relationships and mending fences,” he said. “This is her gig and her job. I would hope to see her put her impact, her fingerprints on the system.”

He said White must establish relationships with politicians who didn’t want to see her in the job.

One such person is Del. Kathy Szeliga. The Baltimore County Republican said White “will have to work to get everyone’s support on the school board and beyond. I hope that her leadership will entail better communications than in the past.”

State Sen. Jim Brochin was a critic of Dance and his decisions. The Baltimore County Democrat, who is running for county executive, wants an audit of the school system’s contracts.

School board chair Edward J. Gilliss said the board is moving forward, as promised, on a complete audit of the contracts and ties to technology companies.

Henn said “Verletta needs to work with us on whatever findings come from that audit to make sure they’re resolved and to get rid of the shadow over her once and for all.”

Brochin expressed hope White would “be a superintendent who is inclusive and transparent and makes a decision after listening to all sides. She needs to make parents and teachers feel empowered.”

Several observers said White needs to distance herself from the Dance administration.

Some parents have taken to calling White “Dallas Dance 2.0.” Dance pleaded guilty in March to four counts of perjury for failing to disclose nearly $147,000 in outside income he earned as a private consultant.

Some of that money came from 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.

White has acknowledged receiving nearly $3,000 per year to attend ERDI’s private sessions with education technology companies in various cities. She said she didn’t disclose the money on disclosure forms correctly because they were confusing. She called it “an honest mistake.”

She has not been charged with any crime.

County Councilman Julian Jones said he was “extremely pleased” about the decision to hire White. He said it will bring much-needed stability to the system, and save the district the cost of a national search.

“Now that the decision is made, we should come together and work together to make Baltimore County Public Schools the best school system in the nation,” he said.

Jones said he has no reservations about forgoing a national search.

“You will not find a person from the outside who will know more about our system and instill the leadership and stability we need at this time,” he said.

White’s four-year contract, including her salary and benefits, are to be negotiated with Gilliss, the board chairman, and then voted on by the board. Dance earned $287,000 a year as superintendent.

Henn said she believes White “has the potential to be an outstanding leader. ... I hope we can work together but there are some repairs that have to be done first.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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