—– BY: Ann Costantino —–
A former Baltimore County school board member says one way to solve Baltimore County Public Schools’ budget shortfall is to significantly reduce the multi-million dollar program that has committed the school system to roughly $350 million in hardware costs alone.
Ann Miller, an outspoken member of the Baltimore County Board of Education, whose term ended last month when a new board was seated, is saying what she had been saying for all three years she served on the board: That the school system’s digital learning, laptop-for-every student program called S.T.A.T., for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, has sucked the life out of Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) and is a drain on Baltimore County’s finances.
She’s baaa-aaack, and she is saying it again.
“Every year I pointedly asked the central office decision-makers to answer the following question: ‘Is the STAT program fiscally sustainable?’ And each year, the answer given was yes. By Dallas Dance, by Kevin Smith, by Verletta White, by George Sarris,” Miller said in an email she sent today to the new school board as members prepare to vote on the 2020 Operating Budget.
With teachers in an uproar over an adjusted budget proposal offered by interim Superintendent Verletta White last week, after new Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. broke bad news during a surprise appearance and presentation at Tuesday’s school board meeting where he said the county simply lacked the money the system was asking the county to approve, White read a second version of a proposed operating budget which has put teachers and administrators into a tailspin.
The proposed cuts, chosen by White and system staff, impact teacher pay raises and a 15-minute increase to the school day which would require teachers and administrators to be paid more.
In all, White slashed $85 million from her originally $1.6 billion proposed budget which is closer to the harsh fiscal reality – or wake-up call – Olszewski delivered to board members last week, which included news that – unless the state kicks in $100 million per year, for the next five years – high schools slated for replacement would be knocked off schedule.
The STAT program
In 2013, eight months after former Superintendent S. Dallas Dance took the helm leading BCPS, he announced a digital curriculum overhaul for the system that he proposed implementing over a five-year period with his “STAT Strategic Plan.” The plan included providing laptops for all now-113,000 students and 9,000 teachers, and switching from books and paper to digital curriculum and online assessments. But in order for the transformation to be successful, Dance said eight internal school “conversions” would have to align to STAT’s goal. Those eight conversions: curriculum, instruction, assessment, professional development, infrastructure, policy, communications and budget.
In 2017, before Dance abruptly offered his resignation while under criminal investigation by state prosecutors which resulted in four perjury convictions, Miller read to him a transcript from a 2016 conference at which Dance, interim Superintendent White and other system administrators spoke in San Diego one year before. At the conference, Dance said he slashed school system programs in order free up system funds for the STAT program. That money, he said, came from cutting 300 of 500 programs from the school system.
“And doing a side-by-side analysis… we’re now down to less than 200 programs we’re using within the district. We are then able to reallocate those dollars to initiatives that we know really, really matter. We then started asking ourselves ‘do we have the right people in place in order to carry out our initiative?’ So there were some central positions we knew we had to look at. Right? We went line-by-line within that budget, even asking ourselves ‘how do we procure devices…,'” Dance said. “… At the end of the day, then we were able to go to our funding authorities and — my budget comes entirely from the state and from the county — and we were able to go to them and say: ‘this is what we want to do — but this is what we have done internally to redirect funds in order to pay for it (STAT) — and this is ultimately what it will cost if you were to commit to doing this with us.”
Miller confronted Dance, in verbatim, on his statements. The full segment can be viewed here.
Echoing those sentiments, Miller again made her case today and sent the new school board an email titled, “MY RECOMMENDATION TO THE BOARD ON SOLVING THE BUDGET SHORTAGE.” It read:
Members of the board:
If any of you have watched previous board meetings that dealt with the Operating Budget or the STAT program, you have seen the issue of the ‘opportunity cost of STAT’ raised multiple times and summarily dismissed by the previous board and central office staff.
This year, that hot potato can no longer be tossed for another year. The opportunity cost of STAT is front and center in the budget shortage, resulting in cuts to classroom teachers, salary increases for those teachers, special ed, facilities, and other system needs.
Every year I pointedly asked the central office decision-makers to answer the following question: ‘Is the STAT program fiscally sustainable?’ And each year, the answer given was yes. By Dallas Dance, by Kevin Smith, by Verletta White, by George Sarris. [all on public record]
Attached is a spreadsheet I created when the board was considering the 2018 Daly device contract of $140M. This contract is on top of, not a replacement for, the 2014 Daly device contract of $205M. So the board is currently and simultaneously paying for both monstrous, debilitating contracts. Another contract will be required in 2022. Each contract is made up of seven annual leases. The spreadsheet breaks down the annual lease costs for the devices alone, for both contracts, so you can see how much BCPS is paying annually for each contract.
If, instead of making cuts to essential, core priorities as Ms. White last presented to the board, the board would simply vote to not execute either of the FY20 leases, you would save the system $32.8M on the 2014 contract and $27.7M on the 2018 contract, for a total FY20 savings of $60.5M.
The existing devices could then be disbursed as needed to high school students by moving away from 1:1 in elementary school. Any additional shortfall could be addressed through cuts to the top-heavy central office administration budget.
I urge the board to take this action, and direct the iSupe to present a plan to accomplish this. This back-to-basics proposal would allay issues with TABCO, solve this year’s budget shortfall, address parent concerns about screen time and the lackluster results of the STAT program, and create a path for the next six years toward sound fiscal stewardship in our public school system.
The Teachers Association for Baltimore County (TABCO) is organizing a teacher protest to defend teachers’ pay increases that have been slashed from the budget. The protest is scheduled to occur during the next school board meeting, scheduled for Feb. 5.