Baltimore County school system faces new scrutiny for no-bid contracts

From the moment Dallas Dance launched his digital overhaul of Baltimore County public schools in 2012, the former superintendent recommended hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to education technology firms from across the nation.

Many of the purchases were made without competitive bidding.

Discovery Education’s no-bid contract is worth $10 million. DreamBox Learning and Curriculum Associates both have no-bid deals worth $3.2 million. And Code To The Future has a nearly $1 million no-bid contract.

Other than being Baltimore County school contractors, the four companies share another common feature: They are clients of Education Research & Development Institute.

The Chicago-based firm, also called 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 interim superintendent Verletta White.

The no-bid contracts and consulting jobs are expected to draw questions from Baltimore County’s state senators Friday when they meet with White to discuss the district’s ongoing audit of technology purchases.

Concerns about the consulting work have intensified since a Baltimore County grand jury charged 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 pay came from ERDI.

White was also a paid ERDI consultant for four years and failed to disclose the payments, 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. She has not been charged with any crime.

An ethics complaint has been filed against her by a county parent who believes White violated rules that require school officials to report outside income to assure the public that their financial affairs do not present conflicts of interest.

The ethics panel twice reprimanded Dance for failing to disclose other consulting work.

Sen. James Brochin, a Democrat campaigning to be county executive, said legislators are concerned that school administrators, including White, may have met company officials at ERDI conferences who then sought contracts with the school system. He said he believes there is a need for an independent examination of those issues.

“We are being dragged down by the circumstances of what Dr. Dance did,” Brochin said. The county “is still under a cloud” because of the way the school district is conducting business.

Several ethics experts interviewed by The Sun say such consulting work advising companies that could bid on or seek out contracts is problematic.

“At a minimum there’s an appearance of conflict of interest. In reality, it probably is a conflict of interest,” said Diane Swanson, founding chairwoman of the Business Ethics Education Initiative at Kansas State University. “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.”

Dance has not returned calls seeking comment. White has apologized for not reporting her ERDI income, vowed to amend her financial disclosure forms and said she would no longer attend the company’s conferences.

The no-bid contracts have become an issue on the campaign trail as candidates run for the county’s first-ever school board election this year.

Candidate Lily Rowe specifically questioned Code To The Future’s deal.

“They’re not the only vendor on God’s green earth who could have implemented it,” Rowe said. “The board was not given any other alternative to consider.”

The school system in May 2016 posted an online notice alerting the public that it intended to enter into a contract with Code To The Future to teach students “how to write code to create video games and stories, in addition to learning storyboarding, project management, and presentation skills.” The public was given two weeks to comment on the announcement. Officials had not previously notified taxpayers or other vendors that it wanted to hire a company to do such work.

On June 14, 2016, the Baltimore County school board awarded a four-year, $987,000 contract to Code To The Future.

In a statetment Thursday, Mychael Dickerson, the school system’s chief of staff, said Code To The Future is the only company that offers the programming purchased by the school system.

During his five-year tenure, Dance traveled all over the nation — from New Orleans to New York, Miami to San Diego — to attend ERDI conferences and to give speeches touting his initiative to give all students in Baltimore County laptops.

On Feb. 10, 2017, Dance attended a three-hour meeting where DreamBox officials discussed their interactive mathematics products at an ERDI conference in New Orleans. Five months later, on July 13, the Baltimore County school board approved a three-year, $1.8 million extension to DreamBox’s existing no-bid contract, increasing it to $3.2 million.

“The impact that DreamBox has had on student achievement and teacher success in Baltimore County Public Schools speaks for itself. 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 to The Baltimore Sun.

At the same New Orleans conference, Dance 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 2014.

The 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 Baltimore County school board approved a $2 million expansion of Curriculum Associates’ no-bid contract, increasing the total to $3.2 million.

Curriculum Associates officials said the company’s relationship with the school district began before Dance became superintendent in 2012.

“As a result of our programs' proven results to drive student gains in the district, BCPS has continued to expand their annual contract year after year to include additional services,” said Charlotte Fixler, communications director for Curriculum Associates.

The ERDI panel “was a focus group opportunity to solicit feedback about new products, ensuring our development efforts line up with educator needs and best serve students,” she said in a statement. “There were no additional meetings with Mr. Dance and members of Curriculum Associates team at the ERDI Conference.”

Such sessions give companies the opportunity to meet with five superintendents for three hours to receive “honest, candid insight and feedback that clients typically incorporate to upgrade their products and services to modify their marketing plans,” according to ERDI’s website. “In addition to the panel session, the conferences include different social events to help clients truly harness the power of networking with these top educational leaders.”

An ERDI spokeswoman said in a statement Thursday that the company is proud of its work “gathering candid evaluation and analyses from educators and education leaders across the country to better inform research and development of tools that can help children succeed in the classroom.” She also said the company does not know whether its client companies have contracts with the districts of consulting superintendents.

Dance and White and other school executives also traveled to several conferences hosted by ERDI and one of its clients, Discovery Education, a division of Silver Spring-based Discovery Communications.

Discovery Education’s no-bid, $4 million contract to provide “streaming content,” “techbooks,” and professional development was originally awarded in December 2013. It was increased by $6 million on Sept. 27, 2016.

Since then the company hosted Dance and White and other officials to various dinners across the nation: at a rooftop hotel in Miami, at a steakhouse in San Diego and at a top restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia, according to school system and company records.

The company’s invitation to a “rooftop social” in downtown Miami came with a disclaimer from Discovery Education. “Please consult your ethics officials to ensure no local laws, or school district rules prevent your acceptance of costs or promotional materials associated with this event.”

White said she attended only briefly. “I popped in,” she said, adding that she followed ethics rules governing travel.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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