The Baltimore County school board voted Tuesday night to delay a vote on a $140 million contract to supply students and teachers with 133,000 new laptops.
Several members asked for the delay, saying they needed time to review details of the seven-year contract, which was made public only last week.
“I think we are rushing into this. It isn’t going to hurt to be a little more studious in our look at it,” said one board member, Roger Hayden.
The decision comes days after board members learned of the corruption conviction of a former school system employee. Robert Barrett, a community and government liaison for the system, pleaded guilty to federal tax-evasion charges stemming from a bribery scheme, according to court documents made public last week. Former superintendent Dallas Dance is scheduled for trial Thursday on perjury charges stemming from his failure to disclose thousands of dollars of income he received rom outside interests while working for the school system.
Another board member, Kathleen Causey, was among those calling for the delay on the computer contract, saying there hasn’t been time for the board to get answers from staff before voting on an item that commits the system to a significant expenditure each year.
“The teachers, students, administrators and parents have had many changes throughout last five years and we need to ensure a smooth, effective roll-out,” Causey said.
A third member, Julie Henn, said Barrett's actions show that the board and the public need more information about the school system’s “relationships and interactions with vendors.”
Henn said she wants a comprehensive, independent audit to examine the interactions of all system staff with vendors “and determine whether or not there has been undue influence on BCPS purchasing.”
“We need to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely — and in the best interests of students — not for the personal gain of those entrusted to lead the school system,” she said.
Interim Superintendent Verletta White had recommended that Daly Computers Inc., which won the $205 million contract four years ago, be given the new contract.
Barrett, who had worked for the school system since 2010 before retiring last week, had been under investigation by the FBI since 2013, according to documents. Barrett is accused, in part, of failing to report as income thousands of dollars in bribes he took from FBI undercover agents posing as out-of-town businessmen looking for “opportunities” in Baltimore County.
Dance is accused of concealing from the school board and the public $147,000 in consulting income, including $90,000 from SUPES Academy, a company that had a contract with the school system.
SUPES trained principals in Baltimore County under a $875,000 contract that the board approved in 2012.
Hayden said the board needed to make a firm statement given the two indictments. “I think there is a problem that we probably haven’t gotten to the bottom of yet,” he said.
“The Barrett thing, I think is an unconscionable thing,” he said. “Acts like this should be talked about and condemned by the board.”
Several parents at Tuesday night’s board meeting spoke against the technology initiative that has provided a sweeping rewrite of the curriculum to give each student a laptop.
Leslie Weber, who spoke for the county’s PTA Council, said it wants an analysis of the program as well as an independent audit before the board votes to spend $140 million.
“It is concerning that the new contract is again with Daly despite ongoing issues with broken devices, technical service problems and extremely high device costs,” Weber said.
Hillary Martell, a parent, said she doesn’t want her young children to have too much time on screens. “If you want to teach kids to be prepared, teach them to read books, not iPads.”
Martell said that “in a school district that lacks proper facilities, shortage of educators and counselors, not enough basic supplies for our kids, why are we pushing these devices into our kids’ hands and into our homes?”
But some teachers from Randallstown Elementary School said they believed the laptops were valuable educational tools, particularly for some of their students who do not have access to technology at home.