Trust is a tricky commodity to measure. But education observers say public trust in school district officials is essential for success — especially given the stakes involved in providing for the daily education and safety of tens of thousands of students.
The conviction of former superintendent Dallas Dance has served to undermine the trust that parents, politicians and staff must have for the system to excel, observers say.
Dance was sentenced to six months in jail, two years of probation and 700 hours of community service for the four counts of perjury to which he pleaded guilty last month. The charges stem from Dance's deliberately failing to disclose to the county school board nearly $147,000 in consulting work, including pay from a firm that won a district contract with his help.
In Baltimore County's public school district — the nation's 25th-largest system — superintendents are entrusted with a $1.8 billion budget and a staff of nearly 18,000 employees to supervise more than 113,000 students across 173 schools. The issue of how much the public trust was damaged was an issue during Friday's sentencing hearing.
Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt argued that the former superintendent had caused "immeasurable harm" to the school system.
"When you're given that level of trust, violating it creates a great deal of harm and it can't be tolerated," Davitt said. "This was such an egregious breach of trust."
He listed a number of ways the school system has been harmed:
County and state elected officials have called for audits of the school system's contracts. "That's a harm and a cost," Davitt said.
School board officials have questioned how they can trust superintendents in the future, given that Dance lied to them, provided fake documents and reassured one of his outside employers that the ethics panel lacks subpoena power. "Will they now have to check bank records?" Davitt asked.
And, Davitt added, "disillusioned" teachers must now work to rid students of their "lack of trust in authority."
Dance's attorney, Andrew Graham, disputed the notion that Dance's failure to properly fill out financial disclosure forms caused the school system any real, lasting harm. But Graham also said that Dance deliberately hid much of his consulting work because he feared retaliation from his political "enemies" on the school board.
Circuit Judge Kathleen Cox said public scrutiny — including from enemies — is precisely why leaders of large government institutions must disclose finances that could present a conflict or the mere appearance of one.
"That's the point of ethics forms," she said.
State Del. Stephen W. Lafferty, a Democrat who chairs the Baltimore County delegation, said Dance has "fostered more distrust of the district with his behavior, which is going to harm the school system for many years to come."
In addition, Lafferty added: "He's made it more difficult for Verletta White to take over."
White also violated the school system's ethics rules for failing to report on financial disclosure forms income she made on consulting work. Several board members did not support White's appointment this week as the next superintendent because of those lapses.
Some say White and the new school board that will be elected in November will have to work to re-instill trust.
"You are not going to wave your hands and have trust restored immediately, obviously," said Lawrence Schmidt, a former school board president who was on the board when Dance was hired.
I"Those of us who knew him feel disappointed and betrayed," Schmidt said. "It is not a proud moment for Baltimore County Public Schools."
Dance is the first superintendent in the 170-year history of the school system to be convicted of a crime.
His behavior has enraged former county education leaders. While the county has been known for some high-profile crimes over the years — including the conviction of Vice President Spiro Agnew and County Executive Dale Anderson in the 1970s — the school system has not been marred by corruption.
Robert Dubel served as superintendent for 16 years, retiring in the 1990s. During his tenure, he said, employees understood there was a code of ethics that required complete honesty and integrity.
"We knew it was improper to use a stamp for a private letter or take a ticket to a bull roast," Dubel said.
Nancy Grasmick, a former Maryland state school superintendent who spent many years as an educator in Baltimore County schools, said the unethical behavior is damaging to the school system and a "violation of children because these people are held up as a role model."
Some people who believe in public education will remain loyal, she said, but "there are people saying, 'I can't trust the system and I don't want my child there.' "
Grasmick said White and the school board should condemn Dance's actions with strong language and require ethics training for all school employees — including detailed instructions for filling out ethics forms. The sessions, she said, would emphasize to everyone the seriousness of ethical behavior.
Some candidates for the county's first school board election this year said a harsher sentence would have sent a clearer message to other school system officials.
"I don't think the sentence was long enough," said Lisa A. Mack, a candidate for District 1 in southwest Baltimore County. "Everyone in public office needs to be held to a higher standard, especially when that office deals with children."
Her rival, Richard Young, said the six-month sentence "sets a bad precedent."
Young said Dance has left a clear, sad legacy that will linger for years: "Trust no one."
"Anybody on the board has to work two times as hard to regain public trust in the education system and its leaders," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Catherine Rentz contributed to this article.