The Maryland State Department of Education has returned more than $800,000 in federal grant money earmarked for salaries and professional development amid complaints of a toxic work culture and staffing exodus.
Assistant State Superintendent Justin Dayhoff said about $844,000 was returned to the U.S. Department of Education. The federal funds were awarded originally to Maryland through the Carl D. Perkins federal grant, which aims to support career and technical education programs for youth and adults, for the period beginning July 1, 2020, and ending June 30, 2022.
Dayhoff said the forfeiture was “unsurprising” and a direct impact of the pandemic. The grant money was not part of the funding that gets passed directly to schools and was instead earmarked for state leadership to spend on salaries, professional development and conferences.
Still, some former state education employees say federal dollars should never be returned and blamed the forfeiture on a department whose leadership was unwilling to accept counsel from experienced staff.
The allegations come at a time when the Maryland State Board of Education is considering a contract renewal for Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury, who has in recent months generated complaints about creating a toxic work environment.
About 40 former and current employees met privately in February to discuss concerns about Choudhury’s management style and turnover within the department. Following the meeting, former employees wrote eight letters — obtained by The Baltimore Sun — to the state board of education to share their concerns about the workplace culture, employee attrition and efforts to roll out the state’s sweeping reform plan, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.
The board of education’s top leaders have said they would like to see Choudhury continue in the role and are proud of their choice to hire him. Board President Clarence Crawford said last week that the complaints should be taken seriously but dismissed the letters as describing concerns that were months old and bearing similar formatting. Some of the letters were sent anonymously.
[ With billions of dollars for schools in play, Maryland’s Blueprint authorities struggle to work together ]
In one letter, former department employee Nina Roa described how salaries for staff in the state’s Division of Career and College Readiness are partially paid with funding from the Perkins grant. Unfilled vacancies within the division, she wrote, led to Maryland having to return federal Perkins funds. Roa left her position with the department on July 15, 2022.
“This is unprecedented,” Roa writes in the Feb. 19 letter. “I warned the senior executive leadership team of this issue, which went ignored. My team and I presented multiple plans to the Deputy Superintendent for Teaching and Learning which would have reduced the amount of funds returned to the [U.S. Department of Education], but each recommendation was summarily dismissed.”
Roa referred to turnover in the department as a “brain drain” that leaves remaining staff demoralized.
Dayhoff said Friday that staff turnover did not lead to the state returning funds, noting that there was a hiring freeze until January 2022. He said the division, which underwent reorganization, had four open positions in July 2020 and two years later — by July 2022 — had only one additional open position.
Dayhoff said the department used Perkins funds whenever possible for department staff. Only employees who work directly on career and technical education programming would be eligible for such funding. The education department would like to create additional permanent positions to use federal dollars but does not have the authority to do so, Dayhoff said.
Roa said Friday that she and other career and technical education staff suggested to senior leadership that the money be distributed to school systems and community colleges to increase equity and access to related programs. She said that suggestion and others were all permissible under the Perkins grant terms.
The Evening Sun
Dayhoff said Friday that the department didn’t have any record of such suggestions from Roa.
Education leaders said last week that the department as a whole has reduced vacancies from more than 250 to 115 since the lifting of a hiring freeze in December 2021. And officials expect to meet their goal to be below 100 vacancies in June.
During public testimony Tuesday before the state board of education, another letter author, Robert Eccles, a former specialist in the department’s Division of Educator Certification and Program Approval, criticized the grant money’s return.
“The massive exodus of staffers across the agency is unprecedented and self-inflicted,” Eccles said during the public comment portion of the meeting.
He repeated a call included in some of the letters for an independent review of the Maryland State Department of Education and deep dive through state files including employee exit records.
“There’s no harm done ... by having an external investigation,” Eccles said.