Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt speaks to the media after the guilty plea of former Baltimore County schools leader Dallas Dance.
“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” As any Baltimore County high school English student can tell you, William Shakespeare put those words in the mouth of Mark Antony after the death of Julius Caesar. But centuries later, similar thoughts might be applied to the conviction of former Superintendent Dallas Dance, who pleaded guilty Thursday on multiple perjury charges. Whatever good Mr. Dance did for Baltimore County Public Schools — and we would argue that his efforts on fixing educational disparity were praiseworthy — they are no longer much in the public’s mind. They are not his legacy.
There’s no mistaking the tragedy here. A school leader once seen as a rising star, a role model to young people who would often get so charged up by his presence at their school they’d ask him to pose for a selfie, a young, energetic and fearless change agent has now justly earned the title of crook — and one facing serious prison time to boot. And for what? For money? For influence? For ego? He was leader of one of the nation’s largest school systems with broad political support for his agenda. His future was bright. The possibilities were almost limitless.
Mr. Dance isn’t the victim here, he’s the perpetrator; the real victims are the 113,282 students, the 9,202 teachers, the 8,529 other system employees and their families and all 831,026 people who live in Baltimore County who no longer believe they can trust their local school system. This isn’t just about one man’s lies. Nor is it about the guilty plea submitted by Robert Barrett, the school system government relations employee who took bribes from undercover FBI agents (although one does have to wonder about the culture of a school system with two such incidents made in the news in the course of one week).
No, if we’re going to shed a tear here, it’s going to be for that loss of good faith. Right now, there are a whole lot of Baltimore County parents who are convinced that their public school system is a mess. How does that translate into the everyday business of educating young people? Quite a bit, actually. Teachers, guidance counselors, principals and school administrators need credibility as much as they need textbooks and classrooms. How can county residents accept changes in curriculum, the introduction of new technology, budget requests or salary increases, and negative evaluations of their kids — or even positive ones — if they don’t believe the people involved? That’s especially true for a school board that failed to detect Mr. Dance’s misbehavior and an interim superintendent who admitted to an ethical lapse of her own, even if she says it was unintentional.
In recent years, there’s been quite a big debate over capital spending in Baltimore County schools and whether to repair or replace certain schools. It’s a sensitive topic. No one wants their children shortchanged. Can stakeholders trust the school board or interim superintendent to act in their best interests and not simply in their personal interests? What about classroom technology, another controversial area? Can the system be trusted to be acquiring the right technology for the right reasons at the right price? It’s understandable that skepticism is high. It should be. Who wants to see a repeat of what just happened?
That’s why we would urge Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, the County Council, the school board and the county’s delegation to the General Assembly to support all measures that can help mend this rift and restore trust. Think an audit is redundant, too costly or excessive? Think again. Think policy debates are better off held in closed session? That’s another mistake. Transparency needs to be the new watchword at Greenwood campus, not confidentiality. This isn’t just an issue at the top. Schools and teachers ought to understand an atmosphere of distrust exists — even if others are to blame — and go the extra mile to keep parents and guardians informed of what’s happening. There’s no such thing as excessive communications, whether in the form of texts, emails, notes or phone calls, from school to home.
The fall of Dallas Dance was like a thunderbolt that damaged what took years to build. The restoration of the school system’s good name will take much longer as thousands labor to rebuild trust step by step, brick by brick. The system isn’t a mess, but it’s hurting. And it needs extra supervision, extra care, extra attention from those who have been given the job of supervising it.