Baltimore County leaders expressed concern Friday that the school system may have wasted as much as $5 million on textbooks and a curriculum that are not being widely used, calling on school officials to more closely monitor spending.
"When you find out that millions of dollars were directed toward textbooks that are sitting in a warehouse, that is a serious concern," said Donald Mohler, chief of staff for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. "It is important that every dollar we spend be spent wisely. In this case, it appears to be questionable that this was a wise expenditure."
School district officials ignored advice from state leaders and spent more than $5 million over the past several years to overhaul the English program, including buying textbooks that are mostly unused and rewriting a curriculum that has been shelved, according to school system documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
The rewrite of the language arts program started even as the state was warning that Maryland was about to change what should be taught, potentially rendering the Baltimore County effort fruitless. In June 2009, Gov. Martin O'Malley and then-schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick signed an agreement committing Maryland to an effort by 46 states to develop a common set of academic standards for students in kindergarten through grade 12. But Baltimore County went ahead with the rewrite in 2010.
"It is totally shocking that when the state is trying to work with other jurisdictions to create core standards, the leadership in Baltimore County decided to go its own way and may have in fact wasted millions of dollars in doing that," said Del. Stephen W. Lafferty, a Democrat from Baltimore County.
The school system spent about $2.2 million on a 27-year-old grammar book with outdated references. The textbook and accompanying workbook have been sitting in a warehouse for about a year, and school officials acknowledged that they are just now being delivered.
Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said that the grammar book was needed and that the money spent to overhaul the curriculum was not out of the ordinary.
Sen. James Brochin, a Democrat from Baltimore County, pointed out that the spending took place as funds going to classrooms were reduced.
"It is so disappointing that $5 million was flushed down the toilet," he said.
The school system cut about 200 teaching positions in the current fiscal year's budget while continuing to hire on the administrative side. As a result, class sizes have risen, and Brochin said he has talked to high school teachers who said their classes have grown from 26 last year to 35 this year. "The quality of high schools has been diminished," he said.
School board President Lawrence Schmidt said that while the board had been briefed by school system staff on the curriculum writing and book purchases earlier this week, members did not learn all the details until they were published Friday in The Sun.
He said the board will bring up the topic again on Nov. 22 "so we can gather more information on this issue, and we will follow up appropriately." He said Hairston will address the board then.
The school board, which approved the textbook purchases, has policies in place that govern such spending. "It is like any other contract that comes before us, whether it is the purchase of a roof or mulch or a textbook," Schmidt said.
Mohler said the county executive has "every confidence that Mr. Schmidt and the board will look at this and make sure something like this never happens again."
School spokeswoman Phyllis Reese would only say late Friday night that Hairston would address the board about the issue Nov. 22.
Teachers were paid to rewrite the curriculum, as is common throughout the state.
Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said much of the curriculum must now be revised again. "All of the curriculum pieces need revision. Some need more major overhaul."
Beytin believes that some of the novels that the system bought for $600,000 may be used with the new curriculum.
But the $2.2 million expenditure on the grammar book, she said, was much more troublesome. "To revamp a book that was [published] in the 1980s is absolutely crazy when there are plenty of others that are available to be used," she said.
Lafferty said he also wants the superintendent and school board to address the high staff turnover in the curriculum office, which he and others believe may have contributed to the missteps. Six people have been in charge of that office since 2006.
"It is not acceptable to have revolving-door staffing at such a high level when curriculum development is so essential to the well-being of the school system," Lafferty said. "We hope that is corrected soon."