Members of the Baltimore County school board address concerns in a meeting with state senators. (Michael Dresser, Baltimore Sun video)
The chairman of the Baltimore County school board assured state lawmakers Monday that the school district would restore trust and reform the contracting process that former superintendent Dallas Dance used to award work to a company that was paying him as a consultant.
The board chairman, Edward J. Gilliss, and a fellow board member, Julie Henn, appeared before Baltimore County’s Senate delegation in Annapolis to address concerns about the district’s spending practices under Dance, who pleaded guilty last week in Circuit Court to four counts of perjury and faces up to 18 months in jail.
At Dance’s recommendation, the school board awarded an $875,000 no-bid contract to a Chicago company in 2012 without knowing that Dance was working for the firm as a private consultant.
County residents “don’t have faith” in the school board, said Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, a Republican from the county’s east side. “We need to bring that trust back.”
Gilliss and Henn gave the senators an up-close view of the tensions that have existed on the 12-member school board between a majority that largely supported Dance’s priorities and a minority of members who often challenged the former superintendent’s spending practices.
Gilliss reassured the senators that the board is committed to restoring residents’ trust in the school system’s integrity. And he pleased several lawmakers by promising that the district would deliver an independent audit along the lines suggested by six of the senators.
But Henn, sitting beside Gilliss, said the board remains dominated by “members who feel their role is to rubber-stamp what the superintendent does.”
Henn complained that interim Superintendent Verletta White and Gilliss have not been responsive to the concerns of the board minority.
“We’ve requested information from Mrs. White through our board chairman and we’ve gotten nowhere,” Henn said.
She added that she has had to file public information requests to get answers to her questions.
Gilliss, a board member since 2013, disputed Henn’s account of board relations.
“We’re a group of 12 and when the vote is 8-4 with Mrs. Henn and others in the minority, the board has by a majority taken a position,” he said.
Henn raised eyebrows among the five senators present when she gave her account of an introductory meeting with County Executive Kevin Kamenetz shortly after Republican Gov. Larry Hogan appointed her to the school board. According to Henn, when she asked the Democratic county executive how she could help him on the board, he replied that she should “sit down, shut up and get out of the way of the superintendent.”
Don Mohler, Kamenetz’s chief of staff, said that is “absolutely not what happened.”
Mohler, who said he was present at the meeting, said Kamenetz suggested that Henn take some time to listen to the other board members before jumping out in front on issues.
“He wished her luck and encouraged her to work well and in a collaborative manner with the other members of the board,” Mohler said.
Still, Sen. James Brochin, the delegation chairman, said the board minority that has often included Henn has had its concerns heard in Annapolis. The senators who demanded the audit based their recommendations on the minority’s checklist of items to review — including school system contracts, procurement practices, relations with vendors and system executives’ ethical compliance.
Gilliss told Brochin, a Democrat who is running for county executive, that the system will issue a request for bids for an auditing contract this week based on the delegation’s request. He said it likely would be conducted by a large public accounting firm instead of by state or local employees.
The board chairman told senators he’s focused on the future rather than on the scandal centered on Dance, who quit abruptly in April 2017 as the state prosecutor was closing in.
“To dwell on past bad acts is not going to make us any better,” Gilliss said. “I refuse to stumble on the rocks on the path behind me.”
Gilliss said the board’s job is oversight, not the day-to-day management of the system.
“We’re not an administration,” he said. “We’re not supposed to count pencils and paper clips.”
Dance used what’s known as a “piggyback” process that allows the school district to award contracts without seeking competitive bids to companies that already hold agreements with other school districts anywhere in the state or nation.
Gilliss said he expects the board to change the way it handles piggyback contracts. Such contracts can be useful, he said, but in the future he expects to seek competing bids to make sure the system is getting the best possible deal.
While senators welcomed that assurance, several pointed to a broader challenge of restoring trust in the board and the system.
Brochin also expressed dismay at the open rift between school board members but doubted there was much lawmakers can do about it.