A Baltimore County judge on Friday sentenced former schools superintendent Dallas Dance to serve six months in jail after rejecting impassioned pleas for leniency from him and his supporters during a nearly two-hour hearing.
Dressed in a black suit, Dance stood before the judge and offered his first public statement about the four perjury counts to which he pleaded guilty last month, saying he was "truly remorseful" for hiding consulting work he performed while superintendent.
"I'm embarrassed. I'm ashamed of myself," said Dance, who turned 37 on Friday. "That's remorse I'll have to live with for the rest of my life."
Dance pleaded guilty March 8 to perjury for failing to disclose income for part-time consulting work, including payments from a company he helped win a no-bid contract with the school system.
Circuit Judge Kathleen Cox was not persuaded to spare Dance from jail time despite his statement, 69 letters from supporters and testimony from six character witnesses who said his years of service in public education outweighed one mistake.
Dance's attorney, Andrew Graham, said putting Dance in jail would not serve to rehabilitate him and would only punish Dance's 8-year-old son and his two elderly, ailing parents.
The judge agreed that Dance had already suffered from pleading guilty but said her duty was to impose a sentence that inflicts an appropriate punishment to assure the public that their officials will be held accountable.
"He's lost a career. He's lost a reputation," Cox said. "It's not whether the good outweighs the bad."
She sentenced Dance to five years, with all but six months suspended, and ordered him to perform 700 hours of community service. He is scheduled to begin his sentence April 27.
Reaction from county and state officials ranged from sadness to outrage over Dance's conduct, especially among those who had supported his five-year tenure during which his policies closed the gap in graduation rates between black and white students.
"This man who created a charismatic look for the future of schools was bilking everybody," said Del. Stephen Lafferty, a Towson Democrat. "He made it seem like he was doing this in the best interest for the school system. He really misled all of us. With the sentence today, hopefully this sordid chapter can come to a close."
School Board chair Edward Gilliss said he wanted to focus on the good work being done in the district today. "To the extent that the job is now more difficult because of the 'cloud' caused by the former superintendent's actions, I am saddened."
Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt said the state was "gratified" the sentence included a period of incarceration. "That sends a message to the community. When you are in a position of trust, abuse of that trust is harmful and very serious."
Davitt had requested an 18-month sentence.
Dance also received two years' probation. He will be eligible to work during the day while serving his sentence at the Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson, which is adjacent to a high school that opened during his first days on the job, the G.W. Carver Center for the Arts and Technology.
He is the first superintendent in the 170-year history of the school system to be convicted of a crime. It was a stunning fall from grace for a young man who had risen quickly to become a nationally recognized education leader and something of a superstar to students in his school system. He came to be known for an initiative to provide laptops for every student, and for his frequent communications by text message and Twitter.
Dance, who earned $287,000 a year, resigned last summer from his post leading the third-largest school system in Maryland. It later emerged that he was under criminal investigation for failing to report on financial disclosure forms that he had earned $147,000 for doing consulting work while serving as superintendent. One of those jobs was with SUPES Academy, an Illinois-based professional training company.
Prosecutors alleged that Dance helped SUPES land a no-bid, $875,000 contract with the school district shortly after he started in 2012. The statement of facts to which he agreed in pleading guilty said Dance told a SUPES official he would fire an employee if she stood in the way of SUPES getting that contract.
Graham argued Friday that the case at its core was only about Dance's failure to report the income he earned working for SUPES and others, not that he had recommended the board approve a contract with SUPES even as he was getting a job from the company. Graham said Dance had never been charged in connection with the contract.
"The only crime that was charged was about the forms," Graham said.
Cox agreed, but noted that Dance had been caught more than once filling out the forms incorrectly — and continued to hide his income.
For the first time Friday, Graham presented a reason for the deception. "It appears to have been a stupid act, an attempt to avoid controversy with his detractors on the board," the defense attorney said.
A minority of the county school board had tried to block Dance's initiatives and had voted against giving him a second four-year contract.
The prosecution argued that Dance should serve jail time for deliberately betraying the trust of students and teachers.
"This case is not about a lack of judgment," Davitt said.
He said Dance engaged in a continuing pattern of "blatant deceit" from the day he was hired by lying about and continuing to take outside consulting jobs.
"At any stage this could have stopped and it didn't," Davitt said.
He said the harm Dance inflicted on students and teachers in the school system was immeasurable.
"This was such an egregious breach of trust," Davitt said. "Thousands of students looked up to the defendant as both a mentor and role model."
The four perjury counts each carried the possibility of a 10-year sentence.
Dance's attorneys presented character witnesses — including a colleague who oversaw his work in Virginia, his college roommate, and a Baltimore County real estate agent — as their client sought to avoid any jail time.
Graham said his client's admitted perjury did not inflict "immeasurable harm" on the district, as prosecutors alleged.
"This is an honest man who did a dishonest thing," Graham said.
If filing incorrect forms created an immeasurable harm, Graham questioned why the Baltimore County school board voted to hire interim Superintendent Verletta White as the new permanent superintendent.
"She did exactly the same thing," Graham said. "How can the state take totally inconsistent positions?"
White has not been charged with any crimes for failing to disclose income from consulting work that she received from one of the same companies Dance worked for during his tenure.
The county school system's ethics panel determined that White violated disclosure rules for failing to report the income. White, who has called her failure to report an honest mistake, amended her disclosure forms and agreed not to take any future consulting work.
Graham disputed the prosecution's assertion that Dance has not accepted responsibility for his actions.
"He pleaded guilty to four counts of perjury," Graham said. "That's the clearest way to accept responsibility."
Dance told Judge Cox that he was most ashamed of having disappointed his mother and his son. He said his son called to wish him a happy birthday as he drove to the hearing.
"We are here today on his birthday," Graham said. "It is a tragedy."
Del. Eric Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, expressed sorrow over the outcome.
"You had someone who had such potential, who so many people wanted to succeed, and then come to find out that we have all been, essentially, duped," Bromwell said. "Whether it's six months or six years, when your freedom is taken away, it's taken away."
Baltimore Sun reporters Erin Cox and Catherine Rentz contributed to this article.