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—-By: Ann Costantino —-
The attorney who represents the Baltimore County school board has requested $2,250 to comb through “hundreds of emails” exchanged over a 12-month period between members of the school board and an audit consulting firm contracted last year for $413,000 to conduct a procurement audit on sample Baltimore County Public Schools contracts and procurement practices.
Andrew Nussbaum, who advises both the school board and the Baltimore County schools ethics panel, and handles some public record requests for the district, said it would take him an estimated 10 hours to redact information from the emails at his firm’s hourly rate of $225.
In April, UHY Advisors, a company that provides tax and advisory services under international audit firm, UHY, Inc., presented its findings to the school board.
Hired 11 months earlier, UHY Advisors was tasked with reviewing a sampling of contracts, staff spending and travel expenditures that spanned former Superintendent Dallas Dance’s five-year tenure.
When UHY Advisors presented its results, interim Superintendent Verletta White said the audit proved the school system’s procurement practices were sound.
But according to at least one former school board member, Ann Miller, the audit that she and others approved in 2017 was later switched to consulting services using “consulting procedures,” via UHY Advisors, instead of actual audit services the school board originally sought.
The Baltimore Post also found a variety of contracts that failed to abide by procurement procedures, but escaped scrutiny during UHY Advisors’ review of district contracts.
Calls for audit
In 2017, Dance left the district amid a criminal investigation into his association with a school system vendor.
He was convicted on four perjury charges last year after prosecutors proved he intentionally withheld information from his financial disclosure statements when he worked as a paid consultant while leading Baltimore County Public Schools.
Calls for an audit ensued, to ensure that the district’s spending decisions were sound under the former education leader while he led the system from 2012 to 2017. The audit was completed and presented to the school board this past April.
In May, The Baltimore Post reported that at least one record – obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request – showed communication between school board members and UHY Advisors which revealed that the company allowed district employees to determine which school policies should be considered in determining violations as well as what could be considered either a violation of state law – called a “finding” – or what was an “observation” – which showed more benign weaknesses for which UHY Advisors could recommend improvements.
The record showed that during that process, UHY Advisors reduced its more serious findings from three to one, after going “back and forth with (school system) management” over what was a clear legal or policy violation versus a general need for improvement.
But casting a wider net for emails – spanning the entire process from when UHY Advisors responded to the district’s request for proposals to when the company finalized its results – could provide greater context on how the audit was designed and who determined or changed its focus.
Questionable contracts not flagged by auditors
The Baltimore Post identified a number of contracts that seemed to bypass procurement rules for the district, but were not flagged by UHY Advisors.
For instance, in 2016, the school board approved a $150,000 contract with the SAS Institute, a company that provides solutions for data analysis.
But the contract proposed by staff to the school board used a cooperative agreement – also known as piggyback contract – on a no-bid agreement between the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) and SAS.
Piggybacked contracts are agreements that make use of another agency’s pre-negotiated terms and pricing and should mirror both use and financial terms negotiated by the leading agency.
Moreover, procurement rules state that Maryland schools cannot piggyback on another system’s contract if it, too, has not been competitively bid through a formal request for proposal process, soliciting vendors’ bids.
Last month, the PDE confirmed with The Baltimore Post that the agreement the agency had with SAS on which Baltimore County schools entered into a cooperative agreement, was a sole source contract. In other words, the PDE’s contract was not opened to a bidding process by the PDE. Nor was the PDE aware that Baltimore County schools piggybacked on its contract for SAS.
Further, The Baltimore Post found that the account executive representing SAS for a pilot program with the company is a current Baltimore County politician.
Prior to his 2018 election victory, County Executive Johnny Olszewski worked with Baltimore County and Baltimore City public schools as a senior account executive for SAS covering the company’s Maryland territories.
In 2016, with Baltimore County schools as his client, Olszewski worked on the pilot program with the district, the same year the school system entered into its sole contract with SAS, in which Baltimore County schools used PDE’s pre-negotiated terms with the vendor.
But T.J. Smith, Olszewski’s press secretary, confirmed with The Baltimore Post last week that, “The County Executive didn’t play a role in how (the contract was) procured. The local jurisdictions handled the procurement process,” he said.
As of press time, Baltimore County schools did not respond to questions surrounding the SAS contract.
Another contract, reported by The Baltimore Post last year, was a cooperative agreement using Chicago Public Schools’ contract with the American Institutes for Research (AIR), in which Baltimore County schools used an unrelated contract and its own pricing with the vendor.
Chicago’s $494,360, 24 page AIR contract focused on at-risk youth and their social and emotional data and “non-cognitive skills.” But Baltimore County schools’ aim for its $750,000 contract with AIR centered on a study of its online Spanish language program.
Although UHY Advisors’ review focused on mainly on technology-related contracts, a third contract found by The Baltimore Post earlier this year, showed that when the school board approved a $500,000 agreement in 2012 for vendors to provide moving and storage services for district, school board members voted on four companies to serve as on-call vendors, on an “as needed basis.”
But out of the four vendors listed on an approved vendor contract, only one company that was in the moving and storage business received any work: Walters Relocations, Inc., a company that now-District Four Councilman Julian Jones’ wife heads as vice president. Jones was elected councilman in 2014, but Walters has remained a vendor and has received at least $910,000 from the school system, according to publicly available spending data.
But one of the four “moving companies” brought to the school board for approval wasn’t a traditional relocation company at all.
The Baltimore Post also found that the remaining two companies were not eligible to conduct business with the district since they were not a registered Maryland company at the time board members approved the contracts. As the only eligible company to obtain business with the school district, Walters Relocations received $610,000 under the contract approved for the four companies.
At the time, district staff did not respond to questions surrounding the peculiarity.
A fourth contract found by The Baltimore Post reveals that the school system piggybacked on another organization’s cooperative agreement.
In 2015, the district entered a five-year agreement using Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit’s cooperative agreement with the Pennsylvania Education Purchasing Program. for cloud-based teaching and learning using ClassFlow and ActivInspire software via vendor, Promethean.
The public’s right to know
Emails between board members and UHY Advisors could shed light on how the company’s consulting services were chosen in place of the intended audit services, while also illuminating the reason for delays, a fact widely criticized by some members of the media and current and former school board members.
The Baltimore Post requested all emails between school board members spanning the time UHY responded to a request for proposals in March 2018 and the time results were presented by UHY Advisors to the school board this past April. District leaders and members of the media immediately quipped that the UHY Advisors audit proved Baltimore County’s procurement practices were sound.
But in order to receive emails surrounding the full process, Nussbaum said to either pay the amount – which could increase if his time to redact the information increases – or wait for two other parties, who also requested the emails, to share in the costs.
The Baltimore Post is seeking a review of Nussbaum’s request for the hefty fee through the State’s Public Information Act Compliance Board.
The board reviews disputes when fees over $350 are requested for public records in the state of Maryland.
According to Baltimore County schools’ law office, “…fees assessed in responding to an application for public records is calculated by prorating the salaries of the staff and attorneys by the actual time each attributed to the search for, preparation of, and compilation of the responsive records.”
The Baltimore Post filed the record request with the district in April and was notified last week about the requirement to pay for the documents.
But it was Baltimore County schools’ law office which forwarded the request to Nussbaum, who is not a district employee, but is charging his law firm’s per-hour rate in order to fulfill the request.