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Why is the Baltimore County school system shredding ethics documents — and why do they have documents to shred?

There are many curious things about the Baltimore County school system’s decision to shred thousands of financial disclosure documents this year, chief among them the mind-boggling timing of the initial purge on the very day that former superintendent Dallas Dance reported to jail for offenses related to his failure to fill out his own disclosure forms properly. Even if the destruction was innocently motivated and permissible under system policy — such records are only required to be kept for four years — the decision to do so reflected a colossal lack of common sense.

But the shredding, which was first reported by The Baltimore Post, raises another question: Why did the system have all those paper documents to shred in the first place? The purpose of the disclosure forms is to make sure officials aren’t making decisions based on their personal financial interests, and the way they are filed, stored and produced for review stymies that goal.

Some of the documents that were destroyed date from the 1990s, and it’s understandable that the district was using a paper-based system back then. But the system’s policy now, in 2018, still requires high-ranking schools officials, school board members and candidates for the school board to fill out a hard copy of the form. Candidates for the school board aren’t even allowed to email a scan of their forms or fax them; they have to mail or hand deliver them to system headquarters, get a receipt and bring that to the board of elections.

System officials say the documents were shredded because they would run out of room to store them when the next batch of forms comes in. But if the school system switched to accepting electronic copies of the forms and scanning those that came in on paper — or (dare to dream!) adopted an electronic filing system — the problem would solve itself. As it is, there can be no question that the records retention policy allows for the destruction of documents that could be germane. The earliest offenses that got Mr. Dance in trouble occurred in 2012, but the investigation into his actions by the state prosecutor didn’t become public knowledge until five years later. His successor, interim Superintendent Verletta White, had her own issues with incomplete financial disclosures, dating back to the 2013 form. What happened four or more years ago isn’t ancient history.

And then there’s the issue of the hoops the system makes members of the public jump through to see the disclosures. They are available for inspection during regular business hours at the Board of Education headquarters complex in Towson, but you can't just drop in and take a look. You have to fill out a form that asks for your name, home address, home telephone number, cell phone number and email address — and that warns, “A copy of this form will be sent to the individual who filed the financial disclosure.” If that's not enough to discourage scrutiny, how about this: If you want to find out about more than one official or more than one year of disclosures, you need to fill out a separate form for each person and year. After you submit the form, the system says it will contact you within five business days (“in most cases”) with a date and time when you will be allowed to come in to view the forms. That’s awfully convenient — for anyone who doesn’t want those forms ever to see the light of day.

We can do better than that. Baltimore County government has for the last few years posted the disclosure forms of elected officials online, and starting next year the state government will adopt a fully electronic filing system and post forms for legislative and executive branch officials online. Maryland law and regulations require that the disclosure requirements for school board members be “at least equivalent” to those for state officials. The legislature and state ethics commission should make clear that “equivalent” applies not only to the content of the forms but also to the means by which the public accesses them.

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