By: Ann Costantino
Demands for closer scrutiny of Baltimore County Public Schools’ technology contracts – in the wake of recent exposés on school leaders’ outside consulting – has prompted the Maryland State Board of Education to consider an external independent audit.
But first, state some board members want to know what the school system plans to do.
After a closed door session, Board Member Dr. Michele Guyton told The Baltimore Post the state board is reviewing Baltimore County schools’ (BCPS) preference to handle its own audit –which would only cover the last fiscal year. The district’s laptop-per-student digital initiative, set to be expanded to all grades starting next school year, was launched more than three years ago. BCPS issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) in November for an independent firm to conduct a purchasing compliance audit.
“We discussed it in closed session and received legal and procedural advice from our board counsel,” Guyton told The Baltimore Post. “We have reviewed the scope of the RFP for the audit solicitation by BCPS. We will be discussing this with them and will be seeking additional information from the school system about the particulars of that audit solicitation in terms of length, specificity and its response to public concerns.”
“We will definitely be following up and we would like to see that [the timeframe] expanded,” Guyton said.
Two Baltimore County Board of Education members, along with several parents and advocates, implored state board members on Tuesday to audit district contracts and expenditures tied to one of the nation’s most extensive and costly technology integrations, spearheaded by former Superintendent Dallas Dance and currently championed by interim Superintendent Verletta White.
The pleas follow front page Baltimore Sun and New York Times articles that called into the question the relationship between district leaders and school system vendors tied to a controversial consulting firm, the Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI).
BCPS Board Member Ann Miller, who is also a member of the school system’s audit committee, told the state board on Tuesday that that BCPS’ Board of Education has “shown inadequacy in holding system leadership accountable.” Miller said “It is essential that any audit of BCPS contracts be conducted by an independent external entity, not under the direction of the subject of the audit.”
Miller said in her speech, “the only way to begin the journey of restoring the public trust in our school system’s leadership and decision-making is to conduct a comprehensive, independent audit of our contracts from 2012 to present.”
BCPS Board Member Kathleen Causey sent a letter to White that echoed that statement. The letter, which was also signed by Miller and board members, Julie Henn and Roger Hayden, said “The proposed audit is simply inadequate” and that the school system would benefit from an “independent, comprehensive forensic audit.”
“This is an unusual and troubling situation for our school system. Rather than minimize it, or delay, we should address it directly and thoroughly,” the letter stated.
In a follow-up New York Times article last month, The Times reported that State Senator Jim Brochin asked the state board of education to consider an audit of its technology contracts. Brochin also said that the “public’s trust had been eroded.”
Brochin told The Baltimore Post that “The response from Kamenetz (county executive) and the Baltimore County Public School system is ‘we don’t need anybody to double-check our work. We can do this on our own.’” He said, “And I just think that when you think you know it all, that’s when problems come. Having a fresh set of eyes on this is a good idea.” Brochin, a Democrat who has been outspoken about the county’s pay-to-play system, is running for county executive.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat who is running for governor, did not respond to The Post’s request for comment, but told The Baltimore Sun, through a spokeswoman, that he would not be initiating an audit.
Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s campaign manager forwarded a comment to The Post on the candidate’s position on a state-level audit. Olszewski, a Democrat who is also running for county executive, said that Baltimore County Public Schools “gets it right,” with an “outside auditor to investigate contract awards.” Olszewski supports BCPS selecting an independent auditor, as opposed to a MSDE audit to examine the district.
Delegate McDonough, a Republican running for county executive, told The Post that he believes “that a third party or outside source should perform the audit.”
Councilwoman Vicki Almond (D), and Al Redmer (R), also candidates for county executive, did not respond to a request for comment.
In a letter to State Board of Education Superintendent Karen Salmon, interim Superintendent White highlighted the district’s awards for its financial reporting. “The district has been awarded the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting from the Government Finance Officers Association for 21 consecutive years,” White stated in the letter. But for “additional assurance to stakeholders,” White said she had requested a “review of internal controls and management practices that would be conducted through a compliance audit of the system.”
A school spokesman recently told The Sun that White requested the audit “to reinforce her belief and findings of previous audits that show our practices are sound.”
District 42B State Delegate Chris West (R) told The Baltimore Post, “If the Baltimore County Public School Administration is convinced that an audit would establish that no improprieties occurred, it should not fear such a genuinely independent audit.”
District Five Councilman, David Marks (R), provided a statement in an email. “Given the oversight that the state Department of Education provides over local school boards, I think that an audit would be appropriate.”
Councilman Wade Kach (R), from District Three, told The Post that: “It should be an independent auditor to do it (the audit) and it should be independent auditors that are chosen by the MSDE.” He said, “If auditors find things going on that are not legal, they must be reported to the state’s attorney and the state’s attorney, from there, takes action.”
Kach, who did not vote in favor of the school budget this year, said that he would also like to see a performance audit done on BCPS’ entire technology program. The councilman said he did not vote for the budget because BCPS keeps expanding its program despite lacking supportive data that it is actually working for students.
In an interview with The Post, Councilman Julian Jones , a Democrat from District Four, said he is not in favor of an audit and that it has become a political issue. The councilman said, “I don’t think an audit is necessary because what good would it do at this point? Dallas Dance is gone, we have possession of the computers, and who knows what it (and audit) would cost at this point. We’re looking backwards. We should be looking forward,” Jones said.
Dance, who left in June, took the helm at BCPS in July 2012. The former superintendent announced eight months into his superintendency a complete overhaul of the school district’s mode of teaching and learning, introducing his vision for digital curriculum and instruction on laptops that would be provided for each student and teacher in the school system over a multi-year roll-out.
The total cost of the initiative remains unclear, yet BCPS’ 6-year digital conversion plan lists nearly $260 million for laptops, infrastructure, and related costs. There are also tens of millions slated for digital curriculum, software license fees, and other related expenditures, according to BCPS documents.
A recent Op-Ed in the Towson Flyer noted that more than $62 million in BCPS digital curricula contract spending authorities are held by ERDI-listed companies. That includes: “Discovery Education ($10 million); Code to the Future ($987,000); NWEA, MAP-testing provider ($3.9 million); McGraw Hill ($15.6 million); Curriculum Associates/iReady ($3.2 million); DreamBox Learning ($3.2 million); and other for-profit companies whose multi-million dollar “contract spending authorities” were approved by the Baltimore County Board of Education over the past five years—under the tenure of former superintendent Dallas Dance. The contracts are currently in place,” freelance journalist, Joanne C. Simpson, wrote.
The digital program termed STAT, for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, came to classrooms in the 2014 – 2015 school year. Within weeks of its roll-out to first through third graders at 10 Baltimore County schools, BCPS received praise as a national leader by Hewlett Packard (HP) and Discovery Education.
The district committed over $200 million on HP devices for the school system in 2014.
And central to STAT’s curriculum is Discovery Education, which offers a video streaming service, professional development, and interactive “Techbooks” soon to be implemented. Discovery was initially awarded a five-year, $4 million contract for digital content and streaming resources.
Yet that contract is one of several that raise questions. Just one month after Mark Edwards, Dance’s boss and mentor from a previous school system, went to work with Discovery as the company’s Senior VP of Digital Learning, the school system contracted with the education technology vendor for an additional $6 million.
Prior to taking his position with Discovery, Edwards led North Carolina’s Mooresville Graded School District. BCPS used Mooresville, a smaller school district which had been using Discovery Education for its own digital transformation, as a model for STAT.
Both Edwards and Dance referred to Discovery Education as a “thought partner” for their school districts’ digital transformations.
Contracts, such as Discovery’s – which began in 2013 – would be captured in an expanded audit requested of the MSDE by BCPS board members and elected officials, whereas the purchasing compliance audit proposed by BCPS would focus solely on BCPS’ procurement activities for fiscal year 2017.
Dance, who is under criminal investigation for his connection to a separate education consulting firm brought to BCPS through a no-bid process in 2012, has not responded to repeated requests for comment. Edwards could not be reached about the timing of the contract and his hiring at Discovery.
MSDE board president, Andy Smarick, and vice president, Chester Finn, were also not available for comment. But board member Guyton told The Post that specific conversations “had not yet occurred” when asked if the board had been asked to audit BCPS’ departments of Innovative Learning and Information Technology, specifically.
“We will be asking for a lot of information. That is why we are asking questions and are determined to provide more oversight.” Guyton said. This issue is “actively on the radar.”
– This article has been updated with new statements from council members.