By: Ann Costantino
When Dallas Dance, the former head of Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), was paid thousands of dollars to sit down at conferences with companies like DreamBox and Curriculum Associates, it was supposedly to give them feedback about their educational products.
But a cache of emails and documents inadvertently made public on a website used by an education vendor, paints a far different picture of why Dance and other schools superintendents were paid to attend.
These documents, discussing a 2016 conference in Arizona, suggest the real reason was to pitch the vendor products to large school districts with the cash to buy a lot of product. And Dance was listed by at least one company as their top prospect.
The documents also raise questions about the conference organizer, the Educational Research & Development Institute (ERDI). Although not widely known, ERDI has played a key role in linking school district leaders with education and software vendors. But the documents appear to show ERDI blurring the ethical line between school superintendents like Dance and the vendors who are trying to sell them educational products.
Dance unexpectedly announced his resignation in April. It was later confirmed to The Baltimore Post by David Uhlfelder, a BCPS board member, that Dance was under investigation by Maryland prosecutors involving another educational consultant company, Chicago-based SUPES Academy. The Baltimore Sun first reported the allegation.
(The two leaders of SUPES Academy, and the head of Chicago Public Schools, are currently serving prison sentences for their role in a nationwide kickback scheme that involves Baltimore County Public Schools.)
Dance acted as a consultant for SUPES, training Chicago school principals. The former superintendent was also a consultant for ERDI, another Chicago-based consultant firm which met with vendors at conferences looking to do business with school systems.
ERDI offered several levels of “involvement” to mostly educational software and hardware vendors that wanted to participate. The “levels” determined how much time they would get to spend with school officials. With the money from the vendors, ERDI paid not only for the conference expenses, but paid each school official who participated.
In effect, ERDI was passing money from vendors to the superintendents who were supposedly engaged in an arms-length transaction about what to buy for their school districts.
One of two payments
One of those vendors was Istation, a Texas company that sells education software. The contract, which Istation had with ERDI, shows that the vendor paid $23,000 for a “silver” plan that allowed the company to meet with 10 superintendents of its choosing.
How did Istation choose which superintendents it wanted to meet?
A spokeswoman for Istation told The Baltimore Post the company wanted “a group of districts that represent diverse student populations: a combination of large, medium, and small districts; rural, urban, and suburban; diverse socioeconomic factors, etc. ”
However, of the 10 school system leaders chosen by Istation, six represent some of the largest school systems in the country. Baltimore County Public Schools, for instance, the 25th largest school district in the country, had 112,000 students in 2016. Istation’s “National Price Sheet” shows it charges districts a per student rate for its software, meaning that the higher the enrollment, the more software the company can sell.
By the same token, school systems with high pupil expenditures have a track record of spending generously on education. The four smaller school districts chosen by Istation had a history of per pupil spending that was above the $10,000 national average. One school district spent $15,500 per student.
What did Istation hope to learn from its superintendent picks?
According to ERDI, the conference organizer, meetings were set up with superintendents to “provide honest, candid insight and feedback that clients typically incorporate to upgrade their products and services and to modify their marketing plans.”
However, Istation’s internal emails show the company saw the meetings as an opportunity to sell to superintendents.
In an August 2015 email from Istation’s director of sales to employees from the company’s communications, marketing and strategic planning departments, the director mulled the different options.
Istation could “co-sponsor a dinner where we get to talk about our mission and what we do to the entire group of Sups OR… we could be part of ERDI sessions I and II.” The latter choice meant “we would be able to pitch 10 SUPs our message instead of 5.”
In either case, the sales director noted enthusiastically, “it would be AWESOME to have Marketing there in addition to the reps.”
ERDI offered Istation three membership levels (silver, gold, and bronze/silver hybrid), ranging from $23,000 – $43,000 for the year. Each option offered the company the chance to sit with district leaders of the company’s choice.
When Istation signed up for its ERDI silver level membership in September 2015, it invested $23,000 to pitch to 10 superintendents – over two sessions – of the company’s choosing. The membership allowed the company to pitch its products and services to district leaders, at $2,300 each.
The website records show that Dance was the first pick among 10 superintendents Istation selected in rank-order.
Istation did not say why Dance was their first pick. But it was clear that Dance was an eager buyer.
The scale of his spending has been detailed by Joanne Simpson, a freelance journalist, who found that Dance committed Baltimore County schools to at least $260 million, by the 2018-2019 school year, for the school system’s 1:1 digital curriculum laptop program, STAT (Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow).
Simpson points out in an Op-Ed that about one dozen ERDI clients have been awarded contracts with BCPS over the past five years, under the tenure of Dance. Among them, Discovery Education ($10 million), Curriculum Associates/iReady ($3.4 million), and DreamBox Learning ($3.2 million.)
This money was spent despite the fact that some schools in the system lacked basic services such as drinkable water, special education teachers and functioning air conditioning.
Whether Dance bought anything from Istation after the 2016 conference is unclear.
BCPS has not responded directly to inquiries about possible contracts with Istation, either before or after Dance’s 2016 ERDI encounter. And Istation did not answer if the company had met with Dance prior to February 2016.
However, records show that prior to the February 2016 ERDI conference, BCPS had been purchasing software from the company. Between 2012 and 2014, the school system paid Istation close to $31,500.
Currently, the BCPS website lists Istation as a vendor used for individualized reading instruction for the 2016-2017 school year.
Dance’s high profile status among technology companies, typified by multiple invitations to speak at conferences on BCPS’ digital initiative, made him a sought-after personality who had been in charge of the country’s 25th largest school system, with a $1.9 billion budget.
His consulting business created at least one problem for Dance. In 2014, it was discovered that Dance had failed to disclose that he had been paid at least $15,000 by SUPES Academy, after bringing a $875,000 contract with the vendor to the school system.
Although an ethics panel concluded his involvement with SUPES was an “ethical violation,” Dance proposed a “cure”: he would not “hereinafter do any paid consulting.” However, in 2016, Dance was cited again when he failed to disclose income from a teaching job and that he also had a consulting company.
Dance’s checkered history with ERDI – a consultant, panelist and target of vendors – highlights the controversial role ERDI has played with school officials nationwide.
School Boards and superintendents have struggled over whether or not administrators who participate with ERDI are involved in a conflict of interest.
In Ohio’s Youngstown City School district, for example, the school system signed a $262,000 contract with Curriculum Associates this year. It was later learned that ERDI, which has ties to the company, also hired the Youngstown school superintendent as a consultant for an ERDI conference where the superintendent and the company met. Following the conference, the superintendent recommended to his school district that the company be hired.
For their part, school superintendents have tried to head off controversy by writing into their contracts that participation as ERDI consultants, specifically, is permissible by their school systems.
In 2015, the School Superintendents Association (AASA) printed a report for its members, detailing exactly how employment contracts could read to include outside consulting work with ERDI. In a section on school system “loyalty” the report said, “The DIRECTOR shall devote full time, attention, knowledge and skills solely and exclusively to the business and interests of the BOARD of Education and the XXXX School District.” It went on to say that “It is specifically understood by the BOARD and the DIRECTOR that the DIRECTOR desires to maintain his involvement in the Education Research and Development Institute (‘ERDI’).”
Reporters, who have tried to reach out to Dance over several months, have not been successful. Neither he nor principals from ERDI responded with a request for comment.
11/26/17 Update: Dan Domenech, Executive Director of the AASA, told The Post that the portion cited from the superintendent report above (Salary Survey) was written by a superintendent under the “Unique Provisions of Contract” section. Mr. Domenech said that it is “apparently a segment that a superintendent included in his/her contract.” He said that the “AASA shares the responses with our members as provided, with no judgment or endorsement.”