The Baltimore County Education Foundation put on the superintendent's annual "State of the Schools" address this month, a luncheon for hundreds at Martin's West in Windsor Mill during which Superintendent Dallas Dance highlighted successes and his plans for the coming year.
But the nonprofit foundation didn't pay for the entire event. It relied on sponsors — including several companies that have contracts with the school system.
Daly Computers Inc., which was awarded a $200 million contract in March to provide laptops to each student and teacher, gave $7,500 to the foundation as a sponsor. AdvancePath, a program used in high schools to help students stay on track to graduate, gave $50,000.
Discovery Education, McGraw-Hill Education and Pearson, which also have contracts with county schools, sponsored the event, as well.
Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said that while the sponsorships enabled the district to spare taxpayer dollars, the corporate contributions could give the appearance of favoritism. Many nonprofits have written policies making it clear that donations don't give contributors authority over the nonprofit's actions.
"If there aren't proper procedures or a firewall, it certainly raises the question of whether the donations are buying access later on," Bevan-Dangel said.
While the foundation is separate from the school system, it accepts private contributions to pay for school system initiatives or needs. Some proceeds from the State of the Schools event have been earmarked to help pay for the laptop initiative.
In an email exchange, Deborah Phelps, who heads the foundation, didn't address whether the foundation has written donor policies. She said that when the foundation seeks donations from sponsors, "there is not a conversation about their sponsorship influencing or accessing at a later time a contract with the school system."
She said could not yet estimate the cost of the event.
Discovery Education declined to comment on their contributions as a contractor for the school system.
"The goal in sponsoring this event was to provide the opportunity for other educators, parents and the community-at-large to hear about the impressive academic achievements of BCPS students and showcase the incredible work by the district's educators," the company said in a statement.
The other companies did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun