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Dallas Dance's guilty plea spurs renewed calls for Baltimore County school system audit

The guilty plea of former Baltimore County schools chief Dallas Dance led to renewed calls for an independent investigation into the school system.

Several elected officials said it’s past due for an independent audit of the school system’s procedures for awarding contracts.

Dance pleaded guilty Thursday to four counts of perjury, admitting he lied about outside income and steered contracts to a company he worked for on the side.

“The school system must take whatever steps are necessary to restore public confidence, and there must be an independent audit of contracts that were executed under Dr. Dance’s watch,” said Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican.

All seven council members signed a letter in January asking for a state audit of all no-bid technology contracts that were awarded during Dance’s tenure.

There’s also a bill pending before the General Assembly that would require state audit, focusing on the school system’s process for awarding contracts and whether school officials are complying with ethics laws.

“This bill is really necessary because across the board, parents and students are starting to lose faith in our school system in Baltimore County,” said Del. Robin L. Grammer Jr., an Essex Republican who is sponsoring the bill.

“I think everybody has a question whether there’s any integrity in the process,” said state Sen. James Brochin, a Cockeysville Democrat who leads the county’s senators in Annapolis.

Brochin said the school system seems more concerned about improving its public relations than improving its broken systems.

“They don’t seem to care about public policy or sound accounting practices or appearances of conflicts of interest,” said Brochin, who is running for county executive.

School board Chairman Edward J. Gilliss said the topic of contracting will be “at the fore of board obligations.”

“The board will continue with its contract review and approval obligations, and work to ensure that the procurement professionals at BCPS are excellent stewards of public funds,” Gilliss said in a statement.

Earlier in the week, Gilliss expressed confidence in the school system’s contracting process after it became public that former schools official Robert Barrett had pleaded guilty to a federal tax charge.

Barrett is accused of accepting bribes from FBI agents posing as out-of-town businessmen seeking help with business opportunities in the Baltimore area. Barrett helped them by writing recommendation letters on school system letterhead praising them for their work on school system contracts that didn’t really exist. He will be sentenced in May.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said on his Facebook page that Dance’s conduct shows why state lawmakers should support his bill for an independent agency with an “investigator general” to “investigate claims of wrongdoing and corruption” in schools. Hogan’s bill hasn’t yet received a vote in the General Assembly.

Other officials expressed disappointment that Dance admitted to criminal wrongdoing.

“He has brought dishonor not only on himself, but on the public schools,” said Lawrence E. Schmidt, a former school board chairman.

Schmidt said attention to Dance’s misdeeds takes away from positive changes he made in the school system, such as expanding foreign language instruction into elementary schools and giving students laptop computers.

“To the extent that a lot of those issues that we were trying to implement are now going to be colored by his legacy of dishonesty — that is the tragedy,” Schmidt said.

Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said Dance’s guilty plea is a disappointment not only to teachers, but to the students he served as superintendent.

“I have no doubt that he is guilty. Whatever the reasons, there is no excuse for it,” Beytin said. “To me, the worst of it is that he was a role model for our children and we are tremendously disappointed in that.”

When Dance announced his departure from the school system last spring — several months before he was indicted — council members praised him for his work.

Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat who is currently the council chairman, said at the time he would miss Dance. “I think you’ve done an exceptional job,” Jones said then. After the guilty plea, Jones said: “I was shocked and disappointed. I don’t like what happened. I don’t condone it, but … he’s owning up to what he did.”

County Councilman Tom Quirk said last spring that Dance was “amazing.” He had a different assessment Thursday.

“It’s a real shame that someone in that position of power abused his position,” said Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat.

Likewise, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz had often praised Dance for his work on school construction, technology and equity.

Kamenetz, a Democrat now running for governor, issued a statement Thursday, saying: “I am extremely disappointed in Dr. Dance. Public officials need to be held to a higher standard of conduct.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Doug Donovan and Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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