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—– By: Ann Costantino —-
If seeking superintendent candidates in a divided community that is riddled with trust issues wasn’t stressful enough, then adding controversy to the search process itself was just what the Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) community needed to take those trust issues and send them into the stratosphere.
With an anonymous survey and public input sessions wrapping up this week, squeaking by unscathed was almost possible if it weren’t for some observant parents who attended an early morning meeting in Timonium on Thursday.
When superintendent search firm, Ray & Associates, asked for a volunteer to be the meeting’s official notetaker, Ryan Imbriale obliged.
The problem was, though, that Imbriale forgot to mention a tiny little detail that some parents found to be concerning.
As BCPS’s executive director for its Department of Innovative Learning, and chief architect of the system’s controversial $300-plus million laptop-for-every-student STAT program, Mr. Imbriale and his department have a lot at stake, depending on the direction the system’s next permanent superintendent takes.
Some parents felt as though he crossed a line when he volunteered for the search firm, purportedly incognito.
So when BCPS parent, Sue Battle-McDonald, discovered it was Imbriale who took the notes, she wasn’t about to let it slide, and asked him in a letter the same day why he chose to conceal his identity while providing such a service for the search firm.
“You certainly have every right to attend such a meeting as a parent,” Battle-McDonald said. “However, given your prominent role in implementing a very expensive and controversial BCPS program – one that was in fact a subject of intense discussion at the meeting – the public’s interest in transparency would have been much better served had you verbally disclosed your BCPS affiliation during the meeting. This is especially true given that you spoke there in support of STAT, and even more so because you wound up taking the notes that will apparently serve as the only record of comments made at the meeting,” she said.
During the meeting, Imbriale also expressed confusion regarding public concern about the system’s STAT program, stating, according to Battle-McDonald, that he did not “understand what the complaints about STAT mean anymore.”
STAT, which stands for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, began under former Superintendent Dallas Dance and was designed to provide each student with a “personalized learning” environment with software that could purportedly meet a student’s unique learning needs.
But media reports in the fall of 2017 brought up concerns about questionable BCPS employee and education technology vendor ties.
In a November 2017 article by The New York Times, reporters wrote, “Close ties between school districts and their tech vendors can be seen nationwide. But the scale of Baltimore County schools’ digital conversion makes the district a case study in industry relationships.”
Instant and widespread calls for an audit of the system’s procurement practices and technology contracts ensued.
And when Dance was indicted for lying on his financial disclosure statements two months later, after it was found that he concealed income he earned moonlighting, public trust in the school system plummeted.
In 2013, Dance hired Imbriale, a former high school principal, to lead the department that supports BCPS’s STAT program.
Before, during, and after STAT’s roll-out, Imbriale, Dance, the system’s interim Superintendent Verletta White, and several other administrators spoke and taught around the country on the STAT program that was still in its infancy in Baltimore County, and despite the fact that it was lacking favorable results on academic achievement.
But only Dance was flagged by state prosecutors for not disclosing roughly $147,000 in income on his financial statements for his speaking, consulting and moonlighting. The four-count perjury charges led to a conviction and six-month jail term. Dance served four months in a Virginia jail and was released in August.
Dance’s conviction also revealed payments he received from two school system vendors and an education consulting firm, the Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI), which pays superintendents and other education leaders up to $2,000 per conference to meet with ERDI’s clients who, in turn, pay ERDI tens of thousands of dollars in membership fees.
In late 2017, The New York Times revealed that White also worked as a consultant for ERDI. A short time later, the public would learn that, like Dance, White also did not disclose income she earned working as an ERDI consultant. She said she was confused by the instructions on the forms.
While White has not been accused of any crime, she has not disclosed with which ERDI clients – which are largely ed-tech vendors – she met when she consulted for the company’s clients for four years.
As a result, the public’s trust in the school system has continued to erode.
White applied last year for the job of permanent superintendent and was approved by the local school board. But State Superintendent Karen Salmon declined her appointment twice due to ethical violations White received due to her involvement with ERDI, as well as a lack of results for an audit that still had not begun at that time.
The results of that audit are due in a few weeks, according to a BCPS press release.
White is still interested in the permanent job and is eligible to apply along with other applicants who respond to the system’s opening being managed by Ray & Associates. White is also eligible – meeting and exceeding all of the criteria for the job – and is known as a homegrown talent, having attended and taught at Baltimore County schools. She also has over 25 years experience in education.
But some parents and stakeholders want a choice, a fresh start, and distance from the Dance administration under which White worked when she also worked for ERDI.
White has recently made it clear that both she and her vision for the school system differ from that of Dance, stating at a February school board meeting, “We denounce what the former superintendent did. We don’t want to have anything to do with what the former superintendent did. We are not him; he is not us. We are BCPS. We are BCPS strong,” White said.
But a superintendent search process, which school board members have been told they cannot be involved in – in any way – is set up to be a fair search process while the system seeks to find the best candidate for BCPS’s next permanent superintendent – which could include White if she is chosen by school board members for the job.
Mr. Imbriale’s involvement in the search process appears to not have helped some community members regain trust in the system or its processes.
He, nor the system’s communications department, responded to a request for comment. But Chief of Staff Mychael Dickerson sent out a Tweet last week encouraging employees to attend the community meetings. “i’ve received several calls so let’s share the information everyone. Any TEAM BCPS member, community members or employees, can attend ANY of the Superintendent Search Forums you’d like. Here is a list…”
BCPS staff members were in fact permitted to attend the meetings, according to an attendee who asked Ray & Associates staff on Friday.
But the search firm did not respond to The Baltimore Post, by the time this story published, to a request for comment and clarification about any rules of engagement expected by BCPS staff members during the public meetings. Nor did the company respond to questions surrounding Imbriale’s involvement in taking the official notes used to record the public’s feedback on its desired qualities in a superintendent, concerns about the school system and, specifically, BCPS’s controversial STAT program.
Ms. Battle-McDonald told The Baltimore Post that, as of Friday afternoon, Mr. Imbriale had still not responded to her letter.