For four years, interim Baltimore County school superintendent Verletta White worked as a consultant for a company that promotes education technology firms without disclosing the payments to the school system or the public, an investigation by The Baltimore Sun has found.
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.
Her predecessor as superintendent, Dallas Dance, also failed to disclose income the same company says it paid him in 2014 and 2015, county records show. Dance declared receiving income as an adjunct professor at the University of Richmond, but did not mention payments for consulting work with the Chicago-based Education Research & Development Institute in 2014 or 2015.
Dance did report receiving income from the company in 2016 in a form he filed in April of this year -- two weeks after he told the county school board he was quitting as superintendent. The form did not say how much he was paid.
ERDI, as the company is known, represents more than 100 education technology firms that vie to win multi-million-dollar contracts from school systems across the country. ERDI pays school superintendents and other top administrators to advise the tech companies on how to improve their products, an arrangement that has drawn criticism from some ethics and education experts. The tech companies and education leaders meet during twice-yearly conferences at various cities.
The Baltimore County school system awarded no-bid contracts to several ERDI client companies, including Discovery Education, DreamBox Learning and Curriculum Associates, as Dance and White were paid by ERDI.
In an interview Tuesday with The Sun, White said she did not report to the school system’s ethics panel the approximately $3,000 a year she has been paid by ERDI since 2013 because she did not think consulting fees qualified as the type of “earned income” that must be listed on her annual financial disclosure statement. She noted that she did report the income on her tax returns.
“I will make that correction on future statements,” White said. “I didn’t think of a consulting fee as earned income. I should have. That was an error on my part.”
Neither Dance nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment for this article.
The financial disclosure forms, due each year on May 1, require school officials to affirm “under penalty of perjury” that the information contained in them is accurate. The school system's ethics panel has ruled previously that officials violate the ethics code when they fail to report such income.
School board chair Edward J. Gilliss said Tuesday he would leave it to White “to decide on what is supposed to be reported.” He said it would be up to the school system’s ethics panel, which reports to the board, to look at the filings.
Gilliss said that given new information related to Dance’s outside work with ERDI, the board would “have the opportunity to discuss whether something else will be done.”
The system’s ethics code prohibits officials from holding jobs with companies that have contracts or are negotiating for work with the system. It also states that school officials may not “hold any other employment relationship that would impair the impartiality or independence of judgment of the school official.”
White said she had not sought an ethics panel opinion about her ERDI job. The ethics panel can permit outside work if the employment “does not create a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest or the financial interest is disclosed.”
Dance left his position as superintendent on June 30, with three years remaining on his $287,000-a year contract, saying the job was wearing on him. When he resigned, The Sun later reported, he was under investigation by the Maryland State Prosecutor’s office for his relationship with SUPES Academy, a company that had a contract with the school system.
The investigation is ongoing, according to sources.
The Sun reported last month that Dance while serving as superintendent, Dance traveled extensively to conferences across the country, including some sponsored by ERDI and one of its clients, Discovery Education. Dance spent more than a third of the school days in 2016 traveling to out-of-state conferences and billed the school system tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to cover travel expenses associated with some of them, The Sun found.
For ERDI conferences, the company covers the travel, lodging and other expenses incurred by participating superintendents, in addition to paying them as consultants.
In an interview with The Sun, White said she has attended ERDI conferences since 2013 at the recommendation of Dance, who was her supervisor. ERDI paid her $500 for each of the approximately three panel sessions she participated in at two conferences a year, or $3,000 per year, she estimated.
White added that she used vacation time to attend the conferences and said she is not working for ERDI this year, preferring to concentrate on her current job.
“It wasn’t a secret,” she said of her ERDI work, adding that she believes what she learned while working for ERDI was beneficial to the school system.
White said that when she negotiated her current contract with the board, she agreed to donate any outside income to a nonprofit foundation that raises money for county schools. As interim superintendent, White is being paid $265,000 this school year.
Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, a professional organization, said the group advises superintendents to be careful about the potential for conflicts of interest or the appearance of impropriety.
“The question is how do you walk that fine line where you don’t find yourself compromised in awarding a contract,” he said. “You are walking through a minefield and you don’t want to step on a mine.”
He said superintendents are somewhat caught in a bind. While they have to be mindful of appearances, they need information about the products they are buying. “The digital age has required districts to leap into it. They have to find out what works. They have to delve into the products and find the solutions,” Domenech said.
Records show Dance sat on ERDI panels that specifically offered advice to companies that had contracts with the county and were eligible for contract expansions, including Dreambox Learning and Curriculum Associates.
White said she took pains to avoid serving on such panels.
“Whenever I sat on a panel I would make sure that they did not have a contract” with Baltimore County, she said. “I would try to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”
She added that sitting on a panel with a county contractor does not indicate anything improper.
“I don’t think we can automatically draw the line from collaboration to corruption,” she said. “Educators do not deserve that.”
The intersecting relationships appear ethically questionable and “clubbish” to Diane Swanson, founding chairwoman of the Business Ethics Education Initiative at Kansas State University. School boards and ethics officials should be monitoring such interactions more closely, she said.
“At a minimum there’s an appearance of conflict of interest,” Swanson said. “Obviously, the private sector has the goal of more profit and that goal is not the same, I hope, as the educational system in the public sector.”
Swanson said she is especially bothered that the Baltimore County school system has awarded no-bid contracts to ERDI client companies as Dance and White were paid by ERDI. She questioned the school board’s monitoring of its administrators.
“The whole situation points to the question: ‘Where is the oversight?’ ” Swanson said. “Why have a board at all?”
Dance’s employment contract required him to seek advance approval from the county school board before accepting any outside employment, including consulting work. One school board member, Kathleen S. Causey, said this week that she was never informed that Dance was doing consulting work for ERDI. “During my tenure, to my knowledge, the full board did not give approval for Dance to consult with ERDI,” she said.
Causey said she would like the board to review its purchasing procedures.
“I think there’s a great deal the board can do to strengthen our polices to avoid any conflict of interest or appearance of undo influence,” she said.
Kevin Singer, a Pennsylvania superintendent who has consulted for ERDI for 15 years, said school officials need to take precautions to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
His contract with his board contains a clause that allows him to attend ERDI’s two conferences at the firm’s expense. When he is tapped to run one of ERDI’s three-hour panels he alerts the companies, which pay ERDI for the access to superintendents, not to turn the meetings into “a sales job.”
Discovery Education has held a no-bid contract with the Baltimore County school system since 2013, when the school board awarded it $3 million to provide software and professional development. At the end of September 2016, the board increased the contract by $6 million.
Three weeks after the new $6 million contract, Dance and White attended a “rooftop social” hosted by Discovery Education at a Miami hotel.
Meanwhile, Dance while serving as superintendent provided an online testimonial about Discovery Education. In a video on the company’s website, Dance says: “To do the important work that we’re doing, we can’t do it alone. I’m able to interact with colleagues all across our country because of Discovery Education’s network with superintendents and educators.”
Asked about the company’s relationship with White and Dance, a Discovery Education spokesman said it asks school officials to obtain permission from ethics boards before taking part in social gatherings or promotional efforts.
This past February at an ERDI conference in New Orleans, Dance sat on a panel focused on DreamBox Learning. Five months later, on July 13, the county school board approved a $1.8 million addition to DreamBox’s existing no-bid contract, increasing the total award to $3.2 million. Its initial contract in 2014 was $635,000.
A DreamBox representative said the increase was based on the Bellevue, Wash.-company’s success at meeting and exceeding the school district’s goals. “At every step of the way, throughout five years of trials and pilot programs across the district, DreamBox met or exceeded the goals that BCPS set out for teacher engagement and student progress,” the company said in a statement.
At the same New Orleans conference, Dance also participated in a Feb. 11 panel session featuring Curriculum Associates, a Massachusetts technology company that has held a no-bid contract with Baltimore County since April 22, 2014.
Curriculum Associates’ contract started as a $100,000 three-year deal. On June 13, five months after Dance sat on the ERDI panel with the firm, the county school board approved its third and biggest addition of $2 million, increasing the firm’s contract to $3.2 million.
A Curriculum Associates official said the increases were driven by “student gains.”