Photo Credit: Baltimore County Public Schools
By: Ann Costantino
Shining Light on a Spending Legacy
Baltimore County Public Schools will soon be losing its leader, but its spending legacy over the last five years may still be in need of light. Superintendent Dr. S. Dallas Dance resigned on April 18 and may be leaving unanswered questions in his wake – not solely regarding his sudden resignation.
Besides lingering questions on the actual tally of BCPS’ 1:1 Competency-Based Education laptop for every child STAT program, which began as a $200 million investment, was revealed to be closer to $350 million, and is estimated to cost the system an additional recurring $60 million in annual leases and licensing fees, there are other not-so-well-known expenses lurking in the shadows of BCPS’ woefully out of date – and verifiably incomplete – list of monthly expenditures. Once complete with records full of “redacted” details and luxury trips, those expenditures at some point started to fall off public record, sources have revealed.
STAT, for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, has necessitated travel to education technology conferences across the country, where members of BCPS’ administration have taught about the digital curriculum initiative’s implementation and strategic plan. In a recent Towson Flyer Op-Ed, Joanne Simpson wrote about Dance’s travels to dreamy luxury resorts, and trips taken by unnamed employees to Las Vegas casinos. Simpson wrote “Travel records obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request reveal an apparent pattern of overspending on superintendent trips to panels and presentations at education-technology conferences and other events across the United States and East Asia. The tally for just five of those trips: more than $10,800 paid for by taxpayers.” She went on to say “Superintendent travel expenditures for various trips also do not align with reimbursement rules for BCPS employees. Under BCPS Rule 3126 in effect by 2016, ‘pre-approved travel expenses’ for employees’ hotel lodging is reimbursed ‘as compared to federal general services administration [GSA] per diem rates for the appropriate location.’ Dance’s hotel charges for various trips were double or even triple such rates.”
It is unclear exactly how these trips have helped the bottom line, BCPS’ 112,000 students, or whether or not they are even in alignment with BCPS’ goal of equity and Blueprint 2.0.
Is this spending sensitive to the lack felt by schools in the system, whose water is not even deemed potable?
With some schools in the system whose air quality becomes unbearable during extreme heat, Florida’s Rosen Shingle Creek Resort – enjoyed by BCPS employees and totaling over $4,000 for six stays in 2013 – has a refreshing azure swimming pool which would be sure to beat the heat.
In early March 2017, the Post sent a Maryland Public Information Act request to BCPS, asking about several payments made by the school system for various travel across the country. BCPS chose not to respond in any way to the inquiry, a violation of Maryland law. Trips to Chicago that occurred around the time of the SUPES Academy sessions – and Synesi Associates trainings – were questioned after aligning almost perfectly with records concerning multiple SAX Chicago Hotel stays and payments made by Chicago Public Schools to Synesi Associates, a sister company of SUPES Academy.
In 2013, six employees traveled to San Diego for $1,200 hotel stays that were for “exams,” and $13,000 dollars’ worth of hotel charges were attributed to “plumbing maintenance,” with one trip bringing one employee all the way to Tulsa, Oklahoma. For plumbing?
That is a load of dough.
The Post’s inquiries asked for clarification on the trips; yet without answers, the lack of response serves to strengthen the questions – and add to their momentum.
A 2015 Legislative Audit was conducted on Baltimore County Public Schools’ FY 2014 finances in which BCPS was found to be needing improvement in several areas. Among the findings were issues found with BCPS’ procurement practices. The audit determined that “BCPS needs to establish certain comprehensive policies and practices (and) develop formal policies pertaining to the competitive procurement of service contracts above a specified amount, and recordkeeping and physical inventory requirements for certain equipment. We also noted that BCPS awarded two service contracts totaling $1.25 million without competitive procurements.” One of those contracts was for SUPES Academy.
In 2014, a contract for ScholarChip, BCPS’ attendance card swipe system, which was cited as being part of BCPS’ Blueprint 2.0 strategic plan, “Goal 2: Safety and Security, Safe and Secure Teaching, Learning, and Working Environments,” required a 10 year, $10 million contract spending authority for services that fell apart within the first two years.
At the outset, BCPS and ScholarChip were excited about the union, even producing promotional videos together. To date, BCPS has paid $4 million dollars for this program, and is committed to $220,000 per year for hardware maintenance and data center licensing fees for the next eight years. When pressed on why Baltimore County was still paying for ScholarChip’s services, administration stated that BCPS had already, within the first two years, purchased all equipment and implemented the One-card system, however had “chosen not to pursue the attendance module for students.”
Baltimore County will be paying – until 2024 – for a program that was intended to track student attendance and provide added security to our schools.
Is BCPS in need of a full financial audit?
Longtime advocate and presumed District 6 Board Member candidate, Lily Rowe, thinks so. “I believe we are in need of an audit because the financial reports that are provided to the County Executive are not the financial line by line budgets the Board of Education gets and since that’s the only thing the public sees, we really have no idea what is going on. Plus, the school system doesn’t follow the budget. They move money around within the 13 categories and never report what has been moved, so we don’t really even know anything. All we know is that they spend x number of dollars on 13 different categories. We have no idea what they do within the category. That’s an astounding lack of transparency.”
An audit occurring between administrators is not an unusual concept in BCPS and provides transparency for the school system. When a principal leaves a school, it is routine that BCPS administrators conduct what is called a “Change in Principal Audit,” or CHIP. Its purpose is to end one tenure with a full understanding of the vacating principal’s accounting, so to begin anew with a clean slate for the incoming leadership.
Fully answered, a full financial audit could put these lingering questions to rest with one legacy, while creating a fresh start for another. Not brought to light, the absence of information may leave behind a legacy of uncertainty – and a story that might be left to be continued – even after Superintendent Dance leaves the system on June 30.
The Post would like to know: Is Baltimore County Public Schools in need of a financial audit? Let us know what you think!