—– By: Ann Costantino —–
Memo states Baltimore County Public Schools’ financial disclosure statements were purged as ‘required’ by school policy; board chair and policy say otherwise.
The Baltimore County School Board, only one month into its four-year term, has big fish to fry.
Surely, the last thing on board members’ minds is old news like the sudden purge of school of system documents in which 2,600 financial disclosure statements were destroyed last year for the first time in the school system’s recorded history, ahead of a widely requested procurement audit of the system’s purchases and contracts that was called for by concerned state and local legislators.
Although board members passed an updated motion earlier this month to preserve documents that would ordinarily be purged according to an approved document shredding cycle, on their plates are much bigger items to consider such as the approval of a $1.65 billion budget, consideration of new laptops for elementary students, and securing the system’s next permanent superintendent — not small tasks for the group of 12 who have been working together for less than two months.
So, unless board members — and onlookers — were paying really close attention during the January 8th school board meeting (see one hour, 29 minute, 20 second mark), they may have missed a not-so-minor detail relating to what system leadership says was the impetus behind the financial document purges that caught school officials and the public off guard.
During a discussion on retaining system records until auditors complete their investigations, board chairwoman, Kathleen Causey, noted an erroneous statement made in a December 21 memo she and other board members received from interim Superintendent Verletta White. The new board was seated two weeks before. Three quarters of the board are new members who were not present at the time the documents were destroyed.
Reading directly from the memo, Causey, whose first term on the board started in 2015, said, “One of the statements (in the memo) was ‘in the spring, staff members — in compliance with the policy — purged records as required by the policy.’ The word ‘required’ is not really appropriate.” Causey said, “I believe it’s ‘permitted’ by policy, but it’s not required as in ‘they must be destroyed after four years.’ So, I think that’s something that needs to be known.”
Baltimore County school system policy in fact states that financial disclosure statements shall be retained for at least four years from the date they are submitted to the district’s ethics panel. And system employees, who have the authority to spend or direct the spending of school funds, are required to file them annually. The roughly 15-page forms are signed under penalty of perjury and ask employees to disclose vendor relationships, as well as any income made outside of the school system.
An email record shows that, last February, the school system’s law office began pulling financial records for disposal. The move came less than one month after former Superintendent S. Dallas Dance’s January 23, 2018 indictment on four perjury charges was made public, after state prosecutors and a grand jury found Dance provided misleading information on the same type of records destroyed in the purge – his 2012, 2013 and 2015 financial disclosure statements.
The Baltimore Post, coincidentally, began requesting examination of the financial disclosure statements for dozens of employees the same month — in mid-February 2018 — and was unaware of the law office’s plans to destroy almost all of them, while a reporter made over eight dozen inspection requests over a six month period, spanning February to August.
The Baltimore Post discovered the purge in August after requesting a document that logged the record destruction and found that nearly 2,400 of those records were destroyed the day before Dance surrendered to a Virginia jail, after learning his sentence for the perjury convictions one week before. Records included in the purge ranged from 1997 to 2013.
At the time, and also unaware of the document purges, state legislators, local legislators and school board members made multiple requests, asking for a financial audit of school system’s procurement practices and contracts due to concerns raised about vendor and employee ties.
But the audit, which had first been characterized seven months before by interim Superintendent White as a request for review (September 2017), and requested officially as an audit by the school board at that time, had not yet begun. And its scope, which included years 2012 to 2017, had not been decided until one month after 2,400 records had been destroyed, records show. The remaining 200 records were destroyed in August, once the audit was underway.
In all, the financial disclosure statements that could have been captured in the first two years of the audit’s scope — years 2012 and 2013 — were destroyed.
The system’s chief legal council, Margaret-Ann Howie, instructed her office to destroy the records, later referring to the school system’s internal four-year retention policy as the basis for having conducted the massive document purge. However, the internal retention policy was not compliant with Maryland State Archives which requires its own approval of document retention and destruction schedules, as well as notification after government documents are destroyed, records show. The point: the purges of the 2,600 financial disclosure statements occurred outside of state — and public — knowledge of the occurrence.
Records also showed that, other than what an attorney — who advises the ethics panel and the school board — called a “one-time clerical error,” when the system’s law office discarded financial statements twice in late 2017 (two instances which violated the system’s own document retention policy), Baltimore County schools had not chosen to discard any of the 21-years’ worth of financial disclosure records until it began gathering them for destruction last February, following Dance’s late January 2018 indictment.
Several explanations have been offered since the discovery of the record purge:
- Howie said she directed the purge when she discovered her office had run out of space. (The Baltimore Post found that records of similar volume — thousands of emails and financial records requested in 2017 by The New York Times and, later, the Baltimore Sun — had been sent to an offsite storage facility during the same time period, records show.)
- The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board called the document purges a “colossal lack of common sense,” due to the timing.
- Last week, The Baltimore Post reported that Howie said, because she believes the school board is not a “unit of state government,” it is not required to have a document retention program anyway with Maryland State Archives, but is doing so to make things “easier.”
- And, now, a recent memo to new board members asserts that 2,600 financial disclosure records were destroyed last year because of a school system policy requirement.
The Baltimore Post was unable to obtain that memo through an open records request. Howie denied the request, stating it was an intra-office communication which precluded the document’s disclosure to the public. The law office has declined to answer all questions regarding the document purge.
Board Chair Causey could not be reached for comment.
1/21/2019 10:07 am correction: A previous version of this article stated that former BCPS Superintendent S. Dallas Dance was indicted on perjury charges on January 24, 2018. The actual date of the indictment announcement was January 23, 2018. The article has been updated to reflect the correct date.