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—– By: Ann Costantino —–
Requests are intensifying for a legislative audit of Baltimore County Public Schools’ (BCPS) technology contracts and procurement practices after Baltimore Sun and New York Times bombshell articles questioned the system’s spending priorities on tech and travel.
Thus far, a third of the school system’s 12 board members are intent on having a comprehensive and external audit performed.
Yet, setting the record straight last week, the chair of BCPS’s Board of Education, Edward Gilliss, made it clear in a letter to Maryland legislators that the four school board members requesting the audit do not speak for the entire board.
In a letter penned on his law firm’s letterhead, the chair wrote to State Senator Jim Brochin, State Delegate Stephen Lafferty, and the Baltimore County Delegation clarifying that the majority of the board prefers its own compliance audit to a state level legislative audit proposed by Kathleen Causey, Julie Henn, Ann Miller and Roger Hayden. “Surely the voice of a few individuals should not be allowed to distract or pre-empt the objective work to be performed by the independent, third party audit,” Gilliss said in the letter.
Now, a group called the BACo for Accountability of BCPS Leadership is petitioning lawmakers through a Change.org petition, asking them to support a special review audit of Baltimore County Public Schools.
“We know that our legislators agree in the Board of Education’s responsibility for oversight of our school system to ensure that education funding is spent wisely ethically and to the maximum benefit of our students. The appropriate audit would begin the process of restoring the public trust in our system’s leadership,” the petition states.
Triggered by the pair of articles published by The Baltimore Sun and New York Times this past Fall, which put a national spotlight on BCPS’s technology program, travel and relationships with technology vendors, calls for an external school system audit began.
Agreement, however, about its type, scope and oversight have been in dispute.
While the four board members prefer a state level audit on the school system’s technology contracts and travel, two thirds of the board and interim superintendent, Verletta White, say the school system has it under control.
Records obtained by The Baltimore Post through a Maryland Public Information Act request show that The New York Times and Baltimore Sun investigations were underway when BCPS sent out a Request for Proposals (RFP) in September for accountants to bid on the job to audit procurement compliance practices of the school system. Yet questions raised by the publications’ reporters in the October and November articles honed in on vendor relationships, technology contracts and excessive travel – aspects that were not considered in BCPS’s request to initiate its own audit.
In December, White issued a subsequent RFP for an internal compliance audit. But requests by the four board members were not considered. Chief among them: a review of contracts, procurement practices, vendor interactions and ethical compliance for the timeframe of January 1, 2012 to present.
The new RFP also pushed the time frame for audit results to a to-be-determined date, which may occur after February’s operating budget vote is final. The board is set to vote on the system’s Fiscal Year 2019 $1.6 billion operating budget on February 6. The budget – as is – would expand technology contract spending.
But board members in favor of an external legislative audit disagree with the school system’s approach to control its own compliance audit, and have been pushing for an investigation since November.
- On November 10, Causey, Henn, Miller and Hayden, as individuals, sent an email to Board Chairman Ed Gilliss requesting an emergency administrative session to discuss Board action in response to “major concerns raised by extensive media reports on the ethical issues surrounding BCPS relations with edtech vendors.” Neither Gilliss, nor other members of the board, responded.
- The members also wrote to the Maryland State Board of Education and State Superintendent Dr. Karen Salmon, requesting “advisory assistance addressing concerns brought to light in the media.”
- On December 5, the four members wrote a letter to Interim Superintendent White requesting her support for a State Board of Education audit after The Baltimore Sun uncovered more details surrounding Dance’s involvement with Chicago-Based consultant firm, the Education Research & Development Institute.
- Also on December 5, Causey and Miller spoke at the State Board of Education meeting, requesting State Board of Education audit. The request was also supported by Henn and Hayden.
- And on December 15, the board members signed a joint letter addressed to State Senator Jim Brochin, State Delegate Stephen Lafferty and the Baltimore County Delegation, requesting a comprehensive State Legislative Audit that Gilliss is now dismissing.
If approved as requested, the state-level legislative audit would look into technology contracts the system entered into under the tenure of the district’s former superintendent, Dr. S. Dallas Dance.
In March 2013, eight months after taking the job as BCPS’s superintendent, Dance announced his vision for the laptop-for-every-child initiative. “Imagine our students arriving to school with digital devices equipped with their schedules, their books, their assignments and their calendars,” he said at his first State of the Schools banquet event.
But the speed of Dance’s technology initiative has been both praised and scrutinized.
Exactly one year after his announcement, the system would commit $205 million for Hewlett Packard devices and digital curriculum for the system’s S.T.A.T, Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow program. Recent reports have shown the dollars now committed exceed $260 million.
Within weeks of the roll-out to first through third graders in 10 BCPS schools, BCPS vendors, Discovery Education and Hewlett Packard, praised the system for its status as an education technology leader for the country. And the following year, in November 2015, Ryan Imbriale, BCPS’s Director of the Department of Innovative Learning would be recognized by Intel as an Intel Education Visionary Leader.
Missing, however, were academic results supportive of the program.
While BCPS contracted with Johns Hopkins University to conduct an independent study on the STAT program, video records of the district’s board meetings show that for the first two years of the technology program, board members were asked to vote on the following years’ budgets to expand the laptop initiative prior to receiving reports from Hopkins on its study of STAT’s progress.
Without measurable results on the technology initiative, board members relied on surveys, observations and school drop-in visits to assess “student engagement” as an indicator that the program should expand.
The survey organization the district used – Speak Up /Project Tomorrow – asked teachers, students and parents for feedback on technology and learning. Ryan Imbriale, STAT’s director, is on the Speak Up Survey Advisory Council. An audio recording found by a reporter shows Imbriale suggesting at a June 2014 Speak Up Advisory meeting that the survey created for BCPS hid its intention that it was focused on technology.
“If everyone’s not talking the talk then it (the survey) is still about technology,” Imbriale said at the meeting. “I mean, when this is marketed as ‘all about teaching and learning,’ then that drives a whole different conversation, a whole different avenue. And then you’re talking about Chief Academic Officers. Then my sell to my CAO changes completely because I’m not going in and saying: ‘we need to do a technology survey.’ It’s a completely different story and, for a district like Baltimore County, this needs to be marketed as a ‘teaching and learning opportunity.'”
Advocates and parents have questioned the objectivity of BCPS’s surveys, assessments as well as the board’s oversight of Dance’s spending priorities. The four board members are asking the state to audit the system’s technology contracts and disagree that the system should hire its own auditor.
A previous legislative audit, completed by the State in July 2015, criticized the district’s procurement practices, singling out two no-bid contracts that totaled $1.25 million. The legislative auditors recommended that BCPS “amend its existing policies to require competitive procurement methods to be used for all contracts for services.”
Sources have confirmed with The Baltimore Post that one of the contracts was for SUPES Academy, a Chicago-based educational consultant firm involved in a nationwide kickback scheme that has so far sent three key players to federal penitentiaries.
In 2012, Dance brought an $875,000 no-bid, piggybacked contract to the Baltimore County and later took a job as a consultant, training Chicago principals. A recent Baltimore Sun article confirmed that Dance is still under criminal investigation by state prosecutors for his involvement with the consulting firm. Dance resigned in April and left the system at the end of June. It was later revealed in a Baltimore Sun report that he was under investigation at the time.
State legislative audits are conducted at least once every six years for the majority of Maryland’s school systems. Since the last state audit occurred only two and a half years ago, it is unclear if requests for one now will garner enough support by lawmakers. But a November Op-Ed in the Towson Flyer flagged over $60 million in no-bid contracts awarded to education technology vendors for the STAT program, a procurement practice the previous legislative audit specifically criticized.
Baltimore County Public Schools, former Superintendent Dallas Dance, Director Ryan Imbriale, Board Chair Edward Gilliss and the other BCPS Board Members were not immediately available for comment on Friday night. This article will be updated.