—– By: Ann Costantino —–
In an email directed to all Baltimore County school personnel late Friday afternoon, interim Superintendent Verletta White sent out a notice instructing all employees to cease the destruction of any and all school system documents and records – now.
The notice, sent at 4:41pm, stated it was a “DIRECTIVE FROM THE BALTIMORE COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION.”
“The Board of Education has directed that all BCPS personnel immediately cease the routine or non-routine destruction of any and all school system documents and records until further direction by the board with regard to record retention. This directive would include e-mail, including that which is categorized as spam, and any and all records normally destroyed as part of the records retention schedule.”
The Baltimore Post reported earlier this month on a mass document purge that occurred one week after former Baltimore County Public Schools’ Superintendent S. Dallas Dance was sentenced to jail for perjury charges on April 20, stemming from lying on three financial disclosure statements.
The 2,400 purged documents were the financial disclosure statements for roughly 350 past and current system employees, spanning a 21-year period, and occurred amid heated discussions about an audit of the system’s finances and employee and school vendor ties. An additional 200 records were destroyed on Aug 1.
Although Baltimore County schools’ financial disclosure retention policy only requires the ethics department retain records for four years – and the records were destroyed legally – the purge appeared to be the first of its kind, records show.
Employees with the ability to spend or direct the spending of school funds are required to file disclosure forms annually.
Among those employees are the superintendent, community superintendents, central office staff, principals, legal counsel, and school board members. The forms ask for disclosure of outside income, involvement with other companies and relationships with any companies doing business with the school system. The purpose of the forms is to disclose potential conflicts of interest and relationships with school system vendors.
The mandated legal forms are signed by employees under penalty of perjury.
The Baltimore Post had requested the system’s financial disclosure “destruction log” (Financial Disclosure Statement Certificate of Records Destruction) earlier this month. It was then when the mass purge was discovered.
The document purge occurred one week after Dance was sentenced to serve a six-month sentence for his crime, which was five months into discussions surrounding the scope of an audit on which school board members disagreed.
In a pair of damning articles last fall, The New York Times and Baltimore Sun exposed extensive travel by the former superintendent. The Times also first exposed Dance and White’s ties to an Illinois-based educational consulting company, the Education Research and Development Institute – or ERDI.
ERDI, which pays education leaders to meet with its education product and services clients, says it provides a unique opportunity for superintendents to provide valuable feedback on its clients’ products. But the unique access vendors are given to school system leaders, such as Dance, has been questioned in school systems as far as California, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, South Carolina, Washington, and even B.C. Canada.
Namely, concerns have been raised about potential conflicts of interest. Especially troubling are contracts awarded to ERDI’s technology clients by the very school leaders who are paid to meet with them.
In response to The Times’ November article which detailed two vendor contracts that increased by roughly $2 million each after Dance met with two of ERDI’s clients, Maryland State Senator Jim Brochin called on the Maryland State Board of Education to begin an immediate audit of the system’s finances. The Times published Brochins’ request.
The calls for an external and legislative audit were immediately echoed by four Baltimore County school board members, Kathleen Causey, Julie Henn, Ann Miller and Roger Hayden. But the majority of the school board disagreed, favoring instead that the school system maintain control of its own audit.
In a November 10, 2017 letter to State Superintendent Karen Salmon, White said that at a September 26, 2017 board meeting, she had asked staff to request RFPs for an “internal review of the efficacy of BCPS purchasing procedures.” But records obtained by The Baltimore Post through a Maryland Public Information Act request showed that The New York Times and, later, Baltimore Sun investigations were underway when White says she instructed staff to initiate the steps for the review of internal controls and procurement compliance practices of the school system.
Questions later 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 the school system’s request to initiate an internal review, initially.
In December, White issued an RFP for an internal compliance audit. But the four county school board members told the state school board their specific requests were not considered. Chief among them: a review of contracts, procurement practices, vendor interactions and ethical compliance for the time frame of January 1, 2012 to present.
Causey, Henn, Miller and Hayden pushed back, and wrote to legislators, pleading for an emergency legislative audit.
But Board Chair Ed Gilliss, Esq. responded, making his and the majority of the Baltimore County school board’s position clear.
In a December letter, Gilliss wrote to legislators clarifying that the majority of the board preferred its own compliance audit to a state level legislative audit. “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.
But the system would fail to begin that audit. And it was a failure that created a complication for interim superintendent’s approval as the system’s next permanent superintendent.
On April 27, the 2,400 disclosure documents would be purged. A letter dated on the same day, written by State Superintendent Karen Salmon, rejected White’s appointment as permanent superintendent, citing two reasons:
One: concerns about White’s nondisclosure of her position as a consultant for ERDI on her financial disclosure forms that resulted in two ethics violations; and two: that the school system had failed to begin the very audit it preferred over state-level involvement.
Although White has not been accused of any crime, it would be the first of two denials of her appointment as the system’s next permanent superintendent. The second would come in late May after Baltimore County school board chair, Gilliss, reissued the same request to the state superintendent, asking her to approve White for the permanent position.
A week before that second denial – on May 22 – the school board approved a vendor for the audit, once members settled on the audit’s scope. The firm would be hired to look into the system’s procurement activities, travel, expenses, specified contracts, and “other charges.” The audit is ongoing and will also focus on conference fees, professional memberships and dues as well as the details into the expenditures categorized as “other charges” in the Office of the Superintendent annual operating budget.
While the scope of the audit spans January 1, 2012 through December 31, 2017, the purged documents include all financial disclosure statements up through 2014.
Baltimore County Schools’ legal counsel and communications department were not available for comment at the time this story published, but they also failed to answer earlier questions about the timing of the mass document purge and its relationship to Dance’s sentencing and the impending audit. It is also not known who ordered April’s record purge – and why.
Dance was sentenced to serve a six month sentence on April 20. His sentence was later reduced to four months. He is scheduled to be released on Monday.
Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that in excess of 300 records were also purged on 8/1. The correct amount was actually 200. In all, roughly 2,600 financial disclosure statements were purged by Baltimore County schools’ law office in April and August.