Baltimore County interim school superintendent Verletta White announced Friday that she will no longer receive pay from consulting work and will abide by new restrictions on her out-of-state travel.
White will accept compensation only from the school system, seek and obtain school board approval before taking any out-of-state trips and post information about any travel on the district’s website, according to a joint statement released by White and the county school board. Board members also agreed to publicly disclose any trips they take.
All travel for White will be paid for by the school district, not outside groups, under the new agreement. And the board has instructed its ethics review panel to revise rules governing how school officials report consulting fees, gifts and other income from outside organizations. The statement said there are “ambiguities” in the rules but did not elaborate.
The announcement follows an investigation by The Baltimore Sun which found that for four years, White worked as a consultant for a company that promotes education technology firms without disclosing the payments to the school system or the public. School officers are required to report outside income on annual financial disclosure forms.
White has said she made an “honest mistake” by not disclosing her work for the Chicago-based Education Research & Development Institute, but said she did report the consulting fees as income on her taxes. She said her consulting work was encouraged and approved by former superintendent Dallas Dance, who also worked as a consultant for the firm, known as ERDI.
As interim superintendent, White is being paid $265,000 this school year. She told The Sun ERDI paid her about $3,000 a year to attend twice yearly conferences in various cities to take part in private three-hour sessions with education technology companies. The companies pay ERDI to provide them such access to superintendents. Many of ERDI’s corporate clients were awarded contracts with the Baltimore County school system during Dance’s tenure, which ended June 30 when he resigned.
After The Sun’s report, a Baltimore County parent filed a complaint with the ethics review panel alleging White had violated rules requiring school officials to report outside income and prohibiting them from accepting certain gifts. The ethics panel is required to review such complaints. It can either dismiss them or hold a hearing with the employee if it finds a violation. Cases can be resolved if the employee agrees to a “settlement or cure,” including amending past financial disclosure forms.
The agreement with White is not a cure for the ethics complaint. Board chairman Edward Gilliss said in an email that the board discussed the matters in a closed session prior to Tuesday’s public meeting and that the ethics panel’s “review of the complaint is independent of the board’s action.”
Board member Ann Miller said she worries that the joint statement by White and the school board makes it appear that the board is not going to continue to examine technology contracts and possible reforms to the ethics code.
“My concern is that this press release could bias the ethics review panel if they’re led to believe that the board viewed the matter as concluded,” Miller said. “It's my belief that the board chair is not facilitating a thorough process to address the issues in the ethics complaint.”
Miller said she also worried that the Maryland State Board of Education may not consider a request by her and several other board members to conduct an audit of education technology contracts with the school system.
“This isn’t intended to resolve anything,” Miller said of the board’s announcement. “It’s to take preliminary steps.”
Friday’s announcement comes as White’s supporters have been encouraging the school board to hire her as the permanent superintendent. In May the board voted unanimously to appoint White as interim superintendent for a one-year term that ends June 30. Before then, the board either needs to conduct a search for candidates to run the school system for four years or decide to extend White’s tenure in the position.
The school board has not indicated whether it plans to conduct a search, hire White for the permanent post or extend her interim contract for another year.
White’s supporters have taken to social media and to public appearances at school board meetings to pressure the board to hire her. White graduated from Baltimore County public schools and her two children are district students.
Gilliss said the board had “an extensive discussion regarding the issues of the current financial disclosure form and unanimously agreed to the parameters outlined” in the joint statement.
“Ms. White understands the issues identified regarding the current financial disclosure form, and the Board and the Interim Superintendent agree to the recommended revisions,” Gilliss said. “Ms. White is an engaging educational leader, and we are now focused on moving forward. ”
The statement quotes White as saying: “My completion of the financial disclosure form was an honest oversight and mistake on my part. The additional parameters are fair. Now, we must focus on collaborating with our entire school system staff to provide the best education possible for our more than 113,000 students.”
In addition to the restrictions on her outside work and travel, White has instructed her staff to work with the ethics review panel to train all appropriate staff on completing required disclosure forms.