Baltimore County schools' ethics gap

In case anyone who works for the Baltimore County school system isn’t clear on this yet, when you do a service for someone and they pay you for it, that’s called “earned income.” And when your ethics forms say you should report all outside earned income under the penalty of perjury, that is the kind of thing they’re talking about.

The report by The Sun’s Liz Bowie and Doug Donovan that both former Superintendent Dallas Dance and current Interim Superintendent Verletta White were paid by an educational technology consulting company for their work in advising software and hardware developers is disturbing on any number of levels. But the most basic is that they both violated the express terms of their employment by not disclosing the arrangement.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise to either of them that this might be an issue. Mr. Dance was reprimanded by the board early in his tenure for failing to seek permission for and to disclose outside work for the Chicago-based SUPES Academy, and then again in 2016 for failing to disclose income as an adjunct professor at the University of Richmond. Even after that, Mr. Dance didn’t disclose his income from the consulting company, ERDI, until after he left the system this spring. (Mr. Dance is now under investigation by the State Prosecutor’s Office, though the probe appears unrelated to his relationship with ERDI.) And although Ms. White thought the approximately $3,000 per year she earned from similar work was worth reporting to the IRS, she never so much as asked the system’s ethics panel whether it should be reported on her financial disclosure forms as well. Her explanation that she “didn’t think of a consulting fee as earned income” and her belated recognition that such an assumption was an error are not particularly comforting.

The clear reason for the disclosure requirements is to guard against potential conflicts of interest, and the two officials’ arrangements with ERDI should at least have raised questions in their minds. There is nothing new at all about companies looking to do business with school systems trying to wine and dine superintendents; textbook companies played that game for years. But what Mr. Dance and Ms. White did adds a new wrinkle. The system’s ethics code prohibits officials from working for companies that do business with the schools or that are negotiating contracts with the schools. But educational tech companies that do business with the county schools (or would like to) pay ERDI, which arranges conferences at which it pays people like Mr. Dance and Ms. White to sit on panels and give feedback to the firms.

Maybe there’s some value in that for the county schools, in that officials get the chance to interact with their peers at other systems while learning about what’s available in terms of education technology and steering its development toward what’s most useful in the classroom. But it’s also pretty easy to read the situation as pay-to-play at an arm’s length remove.

The school board needs to recognize its responsibility here as well. Its treatment of Mr. Dance’s previous lapses were clearly insufficient to send the message to him and Ms. White that failing to disclose outside income is a big problem that badly diminishes the public faith in the system. And it needs all the support it can get. The issues facing county schools, from aging buildings to achievement gaps, are far too big to allow confidence in the system’s leadership to erode over $3,000 in income for an official who gets well over six figures in taxpayer-funded salary.

The board finds itself in a difficult position. Mr. Dance’s departure left too little time to do a national search for a new superintendent before the July 1 date at which state law mandates new system leaders start their contracts. Conducting such a search before next summer would mean a new leader would come in amid the county’s first-ever elections for school board members and would find himself or herself reporting to an entirely new set of supervisors a few months later. No one worthy of the job would take it under those circumstances. Ms. White, the chief academic officer under Mr. Dance, offered a fresh style but continuity in policy as an interim leader who could step in until the new board takes over, and ambition as someone who wants the job permanently. The current board needs to respond in a way that treats this situation as the serious breach of public trust it is but which neither creates turmoil now nor jeopardizes the system’s long-term leadership. To fire Ms. White over this would be out of proportion with past treatment of similar offenses, but she does deserve some form of reprimand for failing to disclose her outside income, just as Mr. Dance did. The board needs to review its ethics rules to ensure they are perfectly clear and to mandate new training for all subject to them. And for top officials, the board needs to set a policy that clearly prohibits such outside work. This has now been a problem four times in the last four years. The public isn’t going to put up with a fifth.

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