Be part of the solution, Mr. Gilliss, not part of the problem.

If it is to have any usefulness or credibility, the much-debated audit of the contracting and procurement practices of Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) must be done by the Office of Legislative Audits of the Maryland General Assembly or under the supervision of the Maryland State Board of Education, and its scope must be broad enough to include an investigation into the reasons behind any breakdowns or deficiencies in those practices. The auditors must have free rein to follow the facts wherever they lead.

The first thing that I would like to see happen is for Ed Gilliss, Chairman of the Baltimore County Board of Education, to recognize that someone other than himself should take the lead on the audit. He has been the public advocate for the position taken by the board that the audit should be done by an accounting firm selected by the board, and he and that position have become lightnings rod for controversy.

Mr. Gilliss has a solid reputation as a lawyer and has given generously of his time to public service, but he is much too closely identified with former superintendent of schools Dallas Dance to have any role in selecting the auditing firm or shaping the scope of the audit. I believe that, once he acknowledges that fact, the other members of the board who wish to retain control over the audit will also change their minds. Changing their minds would not be an admission that they or their predecessors did anything wrong; it would be a recognition that sometimes appearances do matter.

If the audit is done under the supervision of Mr. Gilliss and the board, it is going to continue the nasty rift among board member and it will lack the credibility that it needs to get BCPS out from in under a cloud. It is difficult the overstate the climate of mistrust that exists. See Ann Constantino’s latest story illustrating why citizens (and teachers and principals) are hesitant to believe anything coming out of the BCPS central office on contracting and procurement issues.

Mr. Dance pleaded guilty to four counts of perjury for failing to disclose nearly $147,000 that he earned from consulting jobs, including payments from a company, SUPES Academy, that Mr. Dance helped win a no-bid contract with the school system to train school principals. The statement of facts read after his guilty plea was jaw-dropping in several respects, but none more so than the fact that Mr. Dance’s chicanery began almost as soon as he was hired by the Board of Education in 2012.

When the story of Mr. Dance and the BCPS is written, it will have two parts. The first part, about Mr. Dance, will be a tragedy of Grecian proportions. Hired by the Board of Education at age 30, Mr. Dance was a rising star in the world of public education. Less than a year into his job at BCPS he already had earned glowing praise from such educational luminaries in Maryland as former state superintendent of schools Nancy Grasmick.

Six years later he probably is headed to prison, and his life and career are in tatters. For what? A few thousand dollars per year on top of his $275,000 salary as superintendent of county schools.

The second part of the story will be how some members of the Baltimore County Board of Education were blinded by reflected glory, and perhaps failed to see warning signs that they should have seen. There is no doubt that some members of the Board of Education basked in the glory of what appeared to be their inspired selection of Mr. Dance as his star continued to rise during his tenure with BCPS.

Mr. Dance’s signature initiative when he arrived at BCPS was his Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT) program, under which every student would be supplied with a laptop computer paid for by the school district. For reasons that remain controversial, BCPS chose HP’s Elitebook Revolve to begin the initiative.

In September 2014, shortly after the first schools received the HP laptops, HP invited Mr. Dance to give the keynote speech at a major education conference in New York City. Gus Schmedlen, HP’s vice president for worldwide education, described the event at a meeting of the Baltimore County Board of Education:

“We had to pick one group, one group to present what was the best education technology plan in the world for the last academic year,” Mr. Schmedlen said. “And guess whose it was? Baltimore County Public Schools!”

[Emphasis added.]

Microsoft, whose Windows software runs the laptops, named the district a Microsoft Showcase school system. Intel, whose chips power the laptops, gave Ryan Imbriale, the executive director of the district’s department of innovative learning, an Intel Education Visionary award. As described in the BCPS press release:

“Ryan Imbriale, executive director of the Department of Innovative Learning at Baltimore County Public Schools, has been named one of the Intel® Education Visionaries, an elite group of approximately 40 education leaders from all over the world who will be exemplars for global education transformation; inspire and share best practices with other educators, administrators and parents worldwide; and help Intel design the future of education technology.”

Here is part of a BCPS press release from April 2016 that gives you some sense of the chest-thumping that went on at school headquarters over STAT:

“STAT has since won attention both from national and international observers, including recognition through two national Digital Innovation in Learning Awards, a $1.5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, being named the sole ‘Showcase’ school system by Microsoft in 2015, being admitted to the League of Innovative Schools, receiving a Digital Content and Curriculum Achievement Award from the Center for Digital Education, and earning a grant through Maryland’s 2014 Digital Learning Innovation Fund. Dr. Dance also has discussed STAT before audiences including the Federal Communications Commission and a technology symposium in the Republic of Korea.”

And on it went.  The board members who reveled in Mr. Dance’s celebrity status had the full support of most members of County government. County Councilman Julian Jones said that the school district benefited from Dance’s growing national reputation as a digital-savvy superintendent appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014 to the Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans and invited to events at the White House.

My point is that some members of the board had hitched their own reputations to Mr. Dance’s star, and had a hard time facing reality when that star began to fade. In my opinion, Mr. Gilliss was one of those members.

Mr. Gilliss jumped to the defense of Mr. Dance after the Baltimore Sun reported in October 2017 that Mr. Dance was traveling outside the school district during more than a third of all school days in 2016, and that most of that travel was for conferences focusing on education technology products and policies:

“Dr. Dance was present at everything that was important,” Mr. Gilliss said. “He was available to me at any time I called him. The mere fact that he was able to do a great job as superintendent is enough said. The fact that he traveled shouldn’t impact the recognition of the good things he accomplished for our district.”

Had I been Mr. Gilliss, I believe that I would have been a bit more circumspect in my response.  By time of the Sun story, Mr. Dance had given Mr. Gillis and other members of the board ample reason to be concerned about his conduct.

After the no-bid contract with SUPES Academy described above was approved by the board of education in 2012, Mr. Dance went to work for SUPES training principals in the Chicago public schools, where his friend and mentor, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, was the CEO. Mr. Dance, however, did not disclose his employment with SUPES to the board until it was reported in 2013 in a story by Liz Bowie of the Baltimore Sun.

In 2014, the Ethics Review Panel of the county school board found that Mr. Dance had violated ethics rules by taking a consulting job with a company doing business with the school system. The panel “found no evidence that Dance had been paid” for any work by SUPES, however, which ostensibly mitigated the severity of the violation. As we found out later, the finding that Mr. Dance had not been paid by SUPES was not correct.

In 2016, Mr. Dance had a second run-in with the board’s ethics panel. The panel determined that he should have disclosed both his pay as an adjunct professor at the University of Richmond and the fact that he had created a limited-liability corporation in 2012 known as Deliberate Excellence to conduct an outside consulting practice.

Again, the violation apparently was mitigated in the eyes of the panel based on Mr. Dance’s statement that Deliberate Excellence had not received any income. As it happens, that also turned out to be wrong.

In September 2017, the Sun reported that an investigation by the State Prosecutor of Mr. Dance’s relationship with SUPES Academy was underway.  The investigation had been initiated before Mr. Dance abruptly announced his resignation as superintendent of schools in April 2017.

In other words, by October 2017 there were enough questions to warn Mr. Gilliss against getting too far out in front in defending Mr. Dance’s conduct. Even Mrs. Grasmick, who had been effusive with her praise of Mr. Dance in 2013, suggested that Mr. Dance’s frequent absences meant that he could be neglecting his day-to-day leadership responsibilities with the school system. In other words, wiser heads had begun to worry about Mr. Dance.

The bad news kept coming, and the board of education again stumbled badly in the aftermath of reporting by the Sun in November 2017 that both Mr. Dance and his successor, interim superintendent Verletta White, failed to report on financial disclosure forms money that they received from the Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI), based in Chicago.  ERDI represents technology firms seeking to do business with school systems. ERDI also pays leaders of those school systems to advise them on how technology firms can improve their products.

Ms. White worked for ERDI from 2013 through 2016 while at the same time serving as the chief academic officer for BCPS. According to the Sun, BCPS awarded no-bid contracts to several ERDI client companies, including Discovery Education, DreamBox Learning and Curriculum Associates, during the time Mr. Dance and Ms. White were paid by ERDI. The New York Times reported that after Mr. Dance participated in confidential meetings with two of BCPS’s tech vendors at an ERDI conference last year, the BCPS extended both companies’ contracts.

Under public pressure, Ms. White proposed (with the apparent blessing of the board) that an audit be performed of educational technology procurements that took place between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017 by an independent accounting firm hired by the school district. That proposal never should have seen the light of day, and public confidence in the board of education was irretrievably lost.

First, Ms. White should have recused herself completely from any participation in the design or execution of the audit. It is true that I say “only in Baltimore County” a lot, but the fact remains that only in Baltimore County would an official whose conduct helped trigger the need for an audit believe that it was okay to make decisions about the audit.

Second, what about the years from 2013 through 2016 when she was being paid by ERDI? (Both she and Mr. Dance were paid by ERDI in 2014 and 2015.) It was astounding that she would propose an audit that omitted that critical period. It was not until after urging by the state superintendent of schools that the scope of the audit was expanded.

In early December 2017, a group of parents and four of the twelve members of the county board signed a letter to the state board of education. The letter asked that the state be involved in “developing and implementing an independent, comprehensive forensic audit” of how BCPS has conducted its ambitious and expensive program of procuring information technology intended to enhance the education of its students.

Mr. Gillis, who did not sign the letter, reacted testily. He told WBAL-TV: “First, if members of the board went (to the state board), they went without my knowledge. Second, if they went, I hope they said, “we’re just citizens of Baltimore County and not board members.’ They don’t speak for the board.” While the latter statement may have been true, there was a larger point that he seemed to miss.

That point was that a critical mass of people both inside and outside of the school system in the county had begun to question both the wisdom and implementation of the school system’s technology initiative. They had begun to wonder whether the school system took seriously enough the conflicts of interest that had been reported as well as the possibility that decisions about the technology initiative had been driven by the greed or self-aggrandizement of school system officials.

In my opinion, Mr. Gilliss also overreached in his assurances about Robert Barrett. Mr. Barrett pleaded guilty in September 2017 to tax evasion charges arising from his failure to report thousands of dollars in bribes paid to him from 2011 through 2013 while he was a senior Baltimore County school system employee. The guilty plea was not made public until earlier this month.

Mr. Gilliss stated that he was “wholly confident” that Barrett did not influence the award of any school system contracts because Barrett “did not have any role in any manner” in the purchasing process. Mr. Barrett may not have had any formal role, but how was Mr. Gilliss so sure that Mr. Barrett had not used his position to steer contracts in a certain direction?

Less than a month earlier, Mr. Gilliss had explained that local school boards do not provide “oversight of day-to-day administration of local school systems.” So, whose word did Mr. Gilliss rely upon that Mr. Barrett had kept his fingers out of the purchasing process? I am sure that Mr. Gilliss meant well, but his assurances were not very reassuring.

I understand the inclination by Mr. Gilliss to rush to the defense of the institution in which he has invested so much time and effort.  Mr. Gilliss needs to understand that his history of doing so raises questions about his objectivity in the minds of many citizens and public officials.

After Mr. Dance was indicted in January of this year, Mr. Gilliss urged people not to rush to judgment on the charges against Mr. Dance. He denied that the Board of Education had been negligent in its oversight of the former superintendent and said that the board had “been a positive steward of the trust placed in it by its elected officials on behalf of the community.”

Mr. Gilliss is smart enough to know that the citizens of Baltimore County are not going to take his word for that, and the case for the board being a good steward of the trust placed in it by the public was weakened by a story last week in the Towson Flyer. The Flyer reported that BCPS officials had resisted a recommendation in 2015 by the Office of Legislative Audits of the Maryland General Assembly that BCPS “amend its existing policies to require competitive procurement methods to be used for all contracts for services.” No-bid contracts are, of course, more subject to manipulation and abuse than competitively-bid contracts.

The Flyer also reported that BCPS officials declined to say whether the recommendation had ever been adopted. As if stonewalling the media and public does anything but contribute to suspicion of BCPS.

Mr. Gilliss is not running for election, and this will be his final year on the board. It would be a meritorious end to his tenure on the board, and a credit to his leadership as chairman, if he joined the voices calling for the state to assume control of the audit of the contracting and procurement practices of the Baltimore County school system.  Be part of the solution, Mr. Gilliss, not part of the problem.

∞ ∞ ∞

If you want to see what a worthwhile audit or investigation looks like, look at the Final Report prepared for the Maryland State Board of Education by a company called School Bus Consultants in the aftermath of the death of six people in a 2016 accident caused by the driver of a school bus under contract to Baltimore City Public Schools. The audit was performed at the recommendation of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) “that [Baltimore City Public Schools] request that the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) have an independent and neutral third party conduct a performance audit of (the BCPS) transportation department that includes a review of crash reports and of disqualifying conditions for school bus drivers.”

A few takeaways from the School Bus Consultants audit: It was overseen by the state rather than by the city board of education, and it was performed by an independent and neutral third party. Those measures, recommended by the NTSB, ensured that the entity under review – Baltimore City Public Schools – had no say in either the selection of the auditor or the scope of the audit. And those are exactly the safeguards upon which the citizens of Baltimore County should insist for the audit of the contracting and procurement practices of the Baltimore County school system.

The audit done by School Bus Consultants went beyond what went wrong in the course of the operation of the Baltimore City Public Schools Office of Pupil Transportation that allowed a driver with a disqualifying medical condition behind the wheel of a school bus. It also investigated why it went wrong, and concluded that the “culprit” for what is described as an “accumulation of errors” was “a systemic absence of leadership over an extended period of time.”

Similarly, the audit of the contracting and procurement practices of the Baltimore County school system must go beyond identifying what if anything went wrong. If something went wrong, why? Are the proper protocols in place to prevent abuse of “piggy-back” procurements? If so, were they were followed? If they were not followed, why? Was it a failure of management, or was it corruption?  It is only when those questions are answered that BCPS can get past this controversy.

March 18, 2018

 

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