—– By: Ann Costantino —–
Former Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) Superintendent S. Dallas Dance accepted payment from a firm that also later did business with the district for a job the school system did not competitively bid, and which appears to run afoul of district procurement policies. The vendor payment is one of two known incidents that occurred during Dance’s employment with the school system from 2012 -2017.
Records show that Dance worked as a consultant for the American Institutes for Research in 2015 and was paid $1,500 for the job. Then, in the spring of 2017, Baltimore County’s education board approved a no-bid $750,000 contract, piggybacking on an unrelated agreement Chicago Public Schools (CPS) had with the vendor. In the first instance, Dance accepted payments from education consulting company, SUPES Academy, for consultant work he did in 2013.
Unlike SUPES Academy, American Institutes for Research (AIR), a behavioral and social science research and evaluation organization, is not accused of any wrongdoing.
The company, which is evaluating BCPS students on their second language acquisition which is linked partly to a $7.5 million contract with Middlebury Interactive Languages under BCPS’ “Passport Program,” was one of about one dozen companies named in Dance’s indictment late last month. On January 23, a grand jury charged the former superintendent with four counts of perjury for failing to disclose a limited liability company he owned and $147,000 in income – under penalty of perjury – on his financial disclosure forms.
The language evaluation agreement, according to a BCPS document, says the school system procured its services under the Chicago Board of Education contract 16-0127-PR2. (After Dance resigned from the school system in June, BCPS entered into an additional $750,000 contract with the company, piggybacking on an cooperative agreement with Cleveland Metropolitan School District to study students’ social emotional learning.)
Piggybacked contracts, also known as cooperative contracts, are agreements that make use of another agency’s pre-negotiated terms and pricing. According to BCPS officials, a piggybacked contract is supposed to resemble the intended use of the school system using it. In a statement made at Tuesday’s school board meeting, for instance, the school system’s senior executive director of administrative services told board member, Kathleen Causey, that cooperative contracts should be “an exact match.”
Yet, BCPS piggybacked on Chicago Public Schools’ $494,360 contract which is intended to evaluate Chicago students’ “social-emotional” and “non-cognitive skills.” On the surface, the contracts appear vastly different and the use of the “piggyback” vehicle is not in accordance with the statement made by the BCPS official.
Records obtained from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that CPS entered into the three-year agreement with AIR using a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to evaluate and refine support systems for Chicago Public Schools’ at risk youth. Language on the contract also states, “The service agreement also allows for $25 incentives for all teachers and mentors participating in the ‘treatment schools’ participating in the project.”
BCPS officials did not respond to a request for comment on the dissimilar contracts. However, AIR provided a statement regarding Dance’s consulting job and the ensuing contract with BCPS.
The company told The Baltimore Post, “The American Institutes for Research frequently works with consultants as part of its delivery of services to clients. The consultants are independent contractors and are not employees of AIR. Thus, they are solely responsible for reporting any payments they receive from AIR to other organizations or businesses to which they are affiliated and to local and federal tax authorities.”
“Additionally,” the statement continued, “any organizations that contract for work with AIR are responsible for following appropriate procurement procedures, policies, and regulations.”
While the $1,500 Dance earned consulting for AIR is a fraction of the approximate $90,000 the former superintendent accepted from companies like SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates, also named in Dance’s indictment, the job with AIR came also after the superintendent promised to cease all consulting work as a condition of the 2014 ethics violation finding for his consulting with SUPES Academy.
In 2014, an ethics panel found Dance to be in violation of his employment contract for failing to inform the school system’s education board of his consulting job with the company. Then BCPS Board President, Larry Schmidt, told The Baltimore Sun,“The ethics panel found that there was a violation by Dr. Dance insofar as his consulting for SUPES Academy,” Schmidt said. “In this case, Dr. Dance proposed a cure to the violation, and that cure was that he would not hereinafter do any paid consulting.”
But despite the cure Dance chose, and according to information found in his indictment, the former superintendent continued to consult and earned approximately $60,000 in 2015, after the violation involving his consulting work with SUPES Academy. Additionally -in all- almost two thirds of Dance’s undisclosed income found by state prosecutors came from companies that would later do business with the school system: SUPES Academy and AIR.
Dance’s indictment also alleges that he made approximately $90,000 directly and indirectly from SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates — payments that began before Dance brought a $875,000 contract to the Board of Education for its approval on December 4, 2012.
(The former owners of SUPES Academy, Synesi Associates and Proact Search, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, and the former Chief of Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, are currently serving prison sentences in federal penitentiaries for convictions related to the nationwide kickback scheme which involved securing SUPES and Synesi contracts with school systems across the country.)
The director of Columbia University’s National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education told The Baltimore Post that it is compensation that should not be permitted. In a telephone interview, Director Samuel Abrams said, “Much as journalists do not on principle even accept free meals from sources, school officials should not be compensated for talking to potential vendors. There is an implicit quid pro quo necessarily involved in such transactions.”
Besides what he called a conflict of interest, Abrams said, “School officials should not be consulting on the side. They have a full-time job running school districts. That job is complex and demanding. Their attention and loyalty should not be divided.”
Yet, there is an element that can make the temptation conceivable, according to Abrams. “It is understandable how teachers and administrators have been seduced by education technology companies to give workshops and provide feedback about software and hardware. Educators don’t make that much money. But there is an inherent conflict of interest to such work. The solution is to pay teachers much better so they’re not vulnerable to such seduction,” Abrams said.
While Dance was one of the three highest paid superintendents in Maryland – at $287,000 a year – Abrams’ point is that, after spending many years as underpaid educators, sometimes the rationale used by educators to accept such payments is to catch up and “be compensated for not being compensated” earlier on in their careers.
Reports about Dance’s extracurricular compensation, extensive travel and work as a consultant has brought significant attention to the school system.
In response to national media attention by The New York Times last fall, a criminal investigation into Dance’s involvement with SUPES Academy, and last month’s indictment, demands have intensified for an independent special State Legislative Audit to look into Baltimore County’s technology contracts and procurement practices that occurred under the former superintendent.
The system’s last legislative audit, which concluded in 2015, criticized the school system for no-bid and piggyback procurement practices. The report stated, “During our test of 10 contract procurements, we also noted two service contracts totaling $1.25 million (one for training prospective principals and one to improve school schedules) in which the stated procurement method was “piggybacking” on other governmental entities’ contracts…”
The report continued, “No written determination of the benefits of using this procurement method was prepared for either contract. These contracts were issued by other governmental entities that allowed other jurisdictions to use the contract terms and prices. However, we found that BCPS did not use the contract terms and prices established by the other government entities, but negotiated their own unique contract terms and prices.”
Baltimore County Public School officials did not respond to a questions regarding the procurement method it used to obtain the no-bid contract with American Institutes of Research.
Dr. Dance, who left the system in June and had been under investigation by state prosecutors at the time, is scheduled to appear for trial on March 8. Deputy State Prosecutor, Mike McDonough told The Post yesterday that Dance’s arraignment, which was scheduled for Feb. 12, has been canceled. Instead, Dance has hired an attorney and will appear in Baltimore County Circuit Court for trial. The former superintendent is presumed innocent unless and until there is a conviction.
2/8/18 Update: This story has been updated to include an additional $750,000 contract between BCPS and AIR (per a subsequent article by The Baltimore Sun). BCPS awarded that contract after Dr. Dance left the school system in June of 2017.