Maryland's top public education official blocked the appointment of Verletta White as Baltimore County's school superintendent, citing White's recent ethics violations and the school system's failure to conduct an audit of the way it awards contracts.
The Baltimore County school board, which voted last month to appoint White, is expected to discuss whether to ask state schools superintendent Karen Salmon to reconsider her decision when it meets on Tuesday. The board could also authorize White to continue in her current role as interim superintendent for another year.
The rare state rebuke of a local school board decision comes as the Baltimore County system continues to reel from the criminal conviction of former superintendent Dallas Dance. Dance pleaded guilty to four counts of perjury for lying on financial disclosure forms and was sentenced last month to six months in prison.
Dance admitted to lying for years about his paid consulting work for other school districts and companies, including a firm that represents school system contractors.
That firm also paid White for consulting work. The school board's ethics panel found that White violated ethics rules by failing to disclose that part-time job.
That violation was the main reason Salmon cited for declining to approve White.
"I consider an ethics violation to be a serious breach of trust with the public in general and with the education community in particular," Salmon wrote in a letter to the Baltimore County school board chairman, Edward J. Gilliss. "That breach of trust causes me pause as I consider whether to approve White as a permanent superintendent."
The letter was dated April 27. Gilliss said he received it Tuesday. White released the letter, the ethics panel's findings and a statement on Wednesday.
"I … believe that the allegations raised by some concerning my character have been based on speculation and not fact," she said in the statement. She declined to be interviewed Wednesday.
White's ethics violations divided the school board last month when it voted to appoint her as superintendent. She has been interim superintendent since last July.
Board members who voted against White's appointment last month applauded Salmon's decision Wednesday.
"The state superintendent did a great job of laying out her concerns — concerns that certainly a number of us had shared previously," board member Roger Hayden said.
Fellow board member Kathleen Causey said Salmon had made a "prudent" decision.
"I hope moving forward the board has a more measured and vigorous process for determining the next interim superintendent," she said.
Hayden, Causey and other board members declined to say whether they had asked Salmon to intervene.
Gilliss and other White supporters said they would continue to fight for her.
White, 50, has been a student, teacher and administrator in the school system. She is earning $265,000 this year as interim superintendent.
"Two weeks ago, the board expressed its confidence in Mrs. White and voted to appoint her," Gilliss said. "I believe she has proven her mettle, that she is locally rooted, fully invested and broadly respected."
Salmon wrote that she would be open to approving White for a second interim term and possibly a full, four-year term once an audit of the county school system's contracting process is conducted.
Some board members, state legislators and parents have expressed concerns about the hundreds of millions of dollars in technology contracts awarded during Dance's tenure, including lucrative deals with firms represented by Education Research & Development Institute, the company that paid Dance and White as consultants.
"I believe that the results of the audit will provide critical facts for me to consider in deciding whether to approve Dr. White as permanent superintendent," Salmon wrote. "I decline to approve Dr. White as permanent superintendent at this time. Instead, if the Board requests such appointment, I would approve a second interim appointment for Dr. White, or for a different interim superintendent."
Salmon said another year as interim superintendent would allow White "sufficient time" to complete the audit and "for full disclosure of the results."
Some in the county have pushed the board to appoint White as interim superintendent for a second year to allow for a national search. Some want a second interim year because voters will cast ballots in November in the county's first-ever school board election. They say the new board should choose the next superintendent.
White said she still wants the job, particularly to see the district through that transition.
She released what she said were the full findings of the school board ethics panel's investigation of her consulting work. The school system had declined requests by The Baltimore Sun to release that information.
"I have, from the outset of my appointment last year, expressed my desire to be appointed as permanent superintendent," White wrote in a statement directed to the school community. "That desire has not changed.
"As of December 2018, the local board of education will be, for the first time in Baltimore County's history, both elected and appointed," she said. "This major shift in the school system's leadership is another reason for my desire to remain as superintendent to provide stability and continuity."
White took issue with Salmon's comments on the lack of an audit. White said questions had been raised about contracts under Dance's tenure, not her own.
"The State Superintendent appears to be unaware of the fact that the audit, one that I have been advocating for throughout this school year, was intended to review our system's purchasing practices under past administrations," White wrote. "There has never been any indication that procurement practices of my administration lack integrity."
White said she believes an audit will show that "our procurement practices are above reproach."
John Woolums, a lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, called the state's rejection of a qualified superintendent "unprecedented."
"But the state superintendent's letter appears to provide significant options for the board moving forward, including the appointment of Superintendent White to a second term," he said.
County school board member David Uhlfelder said he supports hiring White as an interim for a second year. He was angry that Salmon had interceded in the hiring of a superintendent whom the majority of the board knew well and supported.
"I am upset that [Salmon] thinks she knows better what is good for Baltimore County than I do," Uhlfelder said.
White has said that she failed to report about $12,000 in consulting income, mostly from the Education Research & Development Institute, or ERDI, a company that represents education technology companies, from 2012 to 2016 in her previous role as the school system's chief academic officer under Dance. She said she found the disclosure forms confusing.
The county school board found that White violated ethics rules for failing to report her work with ERDI, but voted not to take any action against her because she had amended her disclosure forms and agreed to stop accepting any private consulting work.
Superintendent appointments in most Maryland counties require the approval of the state superintendent. The state school board, which is appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan, does not play a role in the process. The state school board, not the governor, appoints the state superintendent.
State school board members said none of them disagreed with Salmon when she informed them of her decision last week.
"She had to make a tough call, and I support her decision," said Andy Smarick, state school board chair. "She did what she thinks is in the best interest of Baltimore County."
But Democratic Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who supports White, framed Salmon's decision as a political ploy orchestrated by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, whom he hopes to challenge in the November election.
A spokeswoman for Hogan said the governor had no conversations with Salmon about her decision.
Baltimore County school board member Ann Miller said she agreed with Salmon's decision.
"This is an opportunity for a true fresh start," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this report.
Become a subscriber today to support journalism like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents.