—– By: Ann Costantino —–
In his first three and a half years on the job as the head of Baltimore County Public Schools, former Superintendent S. Dallas Dance earned more than $227,000 in both disclosed and undisclosed income while teaching other school leaders about courageous leadership, using technology in education, and the role of superintendent as a “team builder,” “advocate” and “ethical leader.”
But throughout his tenure, Dance earned money moonlighting by instructing one group of aspiring superintendents, teaching two year-round college courses, consulting for three years with vendors, guiding four out-of-state school systems and delivering at least five paid keynote speeches.
Yet while the former superintendent was known for his frequent out of state travel and speaking engagements, it wasn’t until a 2016 county-level ethics violation – which forced him to declare some income – that prompted Dance to disclose any outside work at all.
Even still, that disclosure failed to tease out all of his side work, records show.
It was then, in 2016, when Dance amended his financial disclosure forms – under penalty of perjury – to include approximately $80,000 earned between 2012 and 2015; and it was then that he lost the opportunity to set the entire record straight.
Stating the forms were confusing, Dance agreed to update the documents for every year of his employment. But he would choose only to disclose an adjunct professor job he held with the University of Richmond and one $575 payment he stated his father earned for Dance’s consultant company, Deliberate Excellence, LLC.
Despite that chance in 2016 to amend the documents, Maryland State prosecutors allege that Dance withheld the $147,000 of income between 2012 and 2015. As a result, a grand jury found cause to indict the former superintendent on four charges of perjury.
An investigation by The Baltimore Post into the organizations connected to Dance’s January indictment, revealed that almost all of the former superintendent’s undisclosed outside work involved providing professional development, coaching and consulting to school leaders across the country.
Dance, who was one of the top three highest paid superintendents in the state of Maryland, making $287,000 during his last year with the school system, was first zinged by revelations of his outside work when, in 2013, Chicago reporter, Sarah Karp, revealed Dance’s consulting work with SUPES Academy and a $875,000 contract Dance brought to the Baltimore County with the vendor.
That discovery led to the first of three ethics violations, when an independent ethics panel determined that Dance failed to disclose the SUPES side job to Baltimore County’s education board.
Although at the time Dance told The Baltimore Sun he earned $13,500 for the job, indictment records show that by that time he had already been paid approximately $90,000 by SUPES and its sister company, Synesi Associates, a consultant company owned by SUPES Academy’s proprietors that aimed to fix under-performing schools.
SUPES Academy, an educational professional development firm, which produced principal and superintendent graduates through a program taught by a cadre of school leaders, is at the core of a nationwide kickback scheme that has so far landed three key players in federal penitentiaries.
The two owners of SUPES conspired with a former Chicago Public Schools official that for every school system contract brought to the consultant company, the official would earn 10 percent of the contracted amount.
Majority owner, Gary Solomon, received seven years at FPC Deluth penitentiary in Minnesota for his role in the kickback scheme. Co-owner, Thomas Vranas, who is serving his time at Thomson ASP in Illinois, received an 18 month sentence. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the Chicago schools official, a highly respected education leader with years of experience turning around under performing schools, received a 4.5 year prison sentence. Byrd-Bennet is serving her sentence at FPC Alderson in West Virginia. Each pleaded to one count of fraud, after being charged with 20 or more counts each.
While Dance’s state-level indictment is not connected to the federal-level kickback scheme, the charges against him include the roughly $90,000 of undisclosed payments he received in 2012 and 2013 from SUPES and Synesi Associates.
Chicago, Illinois – Seven hundred miles to the west of Dance’s former Towson, Maryland office, the brand new leader of Baltimore County Public Schools traveled throughout 2013 to coach Chicago principals for the Chicago Executive Leadership Academy – or CELA – on topics including “marketing one’s school system.”
CELA, which was the name given for that specific SUPES Academy program, consisted of “intensive leadership development” combined with mentoring by leading national superintendents, records show. Dance graduated from a Richmond Virginia-based SUPES Academy program in 2011.
Superintendents and other school leaders were recruited for CELA from across the country to train principals under the CELA program. Some Chicago principals criticized the program for being of low quality and wasteful of limited school resources.
Byrd-Bennett, who was at the time Chief Executive Officer for Chicago Public Schools and who worked previously as a SUPES consultant, arranged the program after introducing two no-bid contracts, totaling $22.5 million, between SUPES Academy and Chicago Public Schools. SUPES then hired school leaders from across the country to coach Chicago principals during the CELA program.
Dance was among those leaders hired as a paid consultant. He was also among five others identified by Karp, the Chicago reporter, for having also brought contracts to their respective school systems with SUPES, Synesi or another affiliate company, Proact Search, a school system employee search firm.
For revealing the scandal, the Education Writers Association recognized Karp for her in depth reporting on SUPES Academy and Chicago Public Schools. Karp was awarded second place for her series of investigative stories surrounding the scandal.
While Chicago Public Schools could not provide the dates of the CELA training, an official connected to the school system told the Baltimore Post that Dance participated as a consultant in “many, many” of the sessions.
The same year that Dance worked as a SUPES consultant, Gary Solomon submitted an application to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) in an attempt to gain approval to consult for Chicago Public Schools through his Synesi Associates school turnaround program.
The program aimed to help under-performing schools by identifying weak links – such as principals – and arranging meetings between vendors and school principals to fix problems in the schools.
The ISBE application listed Dance as one of among eleven “recently engaged team members” who had done work for Synesi as a consultant. It is unknown where Dance performed any work for Synesi.
Chicago Public Schools could not confirm if Dance was among the consultants hired for any of its schools, but Baltimore County financial records show several Chicago SAX Hotel charges throughout 2013, totaling over $3,000, in which both the CELA and Synesi sessions were taking place.
Baltimore County Public Schools chose not to respond to a 2016 records request asking for clarification of those charges.
Providence, Rhode Island – Three hundred miles to the north of Baltimore County schools’ Greenwood office, Dance took on work for a four-month job, earning $4,999 while working as a consultant for Providence Public Schools between March and June 2013. He was paid for the job through his consulting company.
Records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act show that Providence Schools’ former executive director of school transformation, Kregg Cuellar, recommended Dance to his school system, to coach three executive directors under him – or “ZEDs,” for “Zone Executive Directors.”
Cuellar would later be hired by Baltimore County Public Schools and is currently the system’s Zone 1 Community Superintendent.
Providence schools, which had then recently been separated into zones that were overseen by the three directors, also hired Dance to draft a plan on how the three ZEDs could improve supervision of the schools’ principals.
When the Rhode Island job concluded, Dance then took a shorter job in Ithaca, New York, where he delivered a $3,000, one-hour keynote speech to New York’s Ithaca City School District administrators during a Pearson-sponsored July 29-30, 2013 event, called EduStat. Dance spoke “on the role of technology in improving outcomes for all learners.”
Dance’s bio read, “This plan involves aligning goals, resources and actions to meet the needs of contemporary learners. Learners in the Baltimore County School Division are part of a digital conversion that involves laptop/mobile devices for all secondary students as well as a world language initiative that supports all students being bi-lingual upon graduation.”
“Dr. Dance’s keynote will provide a glimpse into contemporary leadership as well as the urgency associated with bold instructional initiatives.”
A year later, Baltimore County schools launched its laptop initiative.
Attendees of the EduStat event paid the event organizer – Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga Schools – up to $370 apiece to hear district leaders speak about best practices and pitfalls of the role of superintendent.
An official from Tompkins-Seneca told The Baltimore Post that Ithaca Schools requested Dance to speak at the event. Tompkins-Seneca also paid Dance $1,161.37 for travel expenses.
Pasadena, California –The Baltimore Post reported last month that Dance entered into a four-month, $42,501 contract with the Pasadena Unified School District.
An official for the school system said that Superintendent Brian MacDonald hired Dance because he knew Dance to be an inspiring speaker. The education leaders both previously worked at Houston Independent School District.
From February 1 to May 30, 2015, Dance coached up to 15 then-current and aspiring principals and provided in-person and virtual mentoring which included helping each participant to self-assess his or her skills.
Dance’s contract with the school system states that he also created individualized learning plans for each employee with whom he worked.
Records show that Dance entered the contract with the school system seven months after agreeing to cease all paid consulting work, a self-imposed consequence he chose for the 2014 ethics violation related to SUPES Academy consulting.
For his work with Pasadena schools, Dance delivered a keynote on February 12, 2015 for $3,000, earned $25,000 for an “Aspiring Leadership Session,”$10,000 to coach the principals, and was paid $4,501.06 for travel expenses he incurred during four in-person trips to the Pasadena.
From there, Dance traveled to Newport Beach, California and, on February 22, 2015, sat on four panels of education vendors for the Dulle Enterprise’s Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI) Winter Conference.
ERDI, an education consulting company that pairs its paying clients with education leaders that ERDI then pays, maintains its intention is to provide its clients with an opportunity to receive valuable feedback on its products and services. But by arranging meetings for its clients with school system leaders, critics say it provides opportunities for vendors to pitch its products and services while superintendents are paid by ERDI to listen.
Records obtained from Baltimore County schools, through a Maryland Public Information Act request, show that Dance sat on the four panels for a three-day conference, chairing one meeting for a company called Baker & Taylor.
The Baltimore Post reported last month that Baltimore County Schools signed off on payment for part of Dance’s expenses for the ERDI Conference. Copies of notated receipts, obtained from the school system through the records request, explicitly show the expenses were for the February 2015 conference.
In an email from a conference organizer regarding the event, Dance was told to ensure to accept dinner invitations received by its vendors, but to refrain from accepting invitations by companies he was not at the conference to specifically meet, through panels he was assigned to chair.
Travel records, credit card statements and an approved expense document confirm that Dance then immediately attended a February 26-28, 2015 American Association of School Administrators (AASA Conference) in nearby San Diego, California.
While Maryland prosecutors found that Dance earned $500 that year from AASA, the organization would not confirm with the Baltimore Post exactly how.
Research into the conference shows that during that year’s event, Dance and other Baltimore County employees spoke on topics related to the school system’s laptop program. Dance also gave a presentation on software program, Microsoft OneNote, during one of two Microsoft-sponsored presentations.
In May 2015, Dance again returned to Pasadena, California and delivered a $3,000 keynote speech for Pasadena Education Foundation’s May 20 annual spring event.
The Foundation is a 45 year-old non-profit organization whose mission is to support, enhance, and supplement the programs, initiatives, and priorities of Pasadena Unified schools. Dance was also reimbursed $838.01 for travel expenses for the event.
The Foundation’s director, Patrick Conyers, told The Baltimore Post last month that Dance spoke about his background and shared ideas on how “best to motivate young people and educators to reach their potential, and how communities can help.” Conyers said the speech was “positive and motivational” and that Dance’s “remarks were well received.”
But a year and a half would go by before Dance would resume what prosecutors allege was undisclosed work. From July 22-23, 2015, records show that Dance participated in a workshop for the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) who hired him for its 2015-2016 New Superintendent Academy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Records obtained by The Baltimore Post show that Dance participated in Part-One of its three-part superintendent training. For a fee of $229, PASA members could take the courses to fulfill up to 75 hours for their superintendent training requirements.
Mark DiRocco, PASA’s executive director, said in a statement to The Baltimore Post that Dance received $1,000 from the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) “for speaking and facilitating a session at a Workshop co-hosted by our organization in July of 2015. PASA hosts or co-hosts several conferences and workshops each year for school leaders and will often pay guest presenters a fee and travel expenses for their services.”
The description of Dance’s session, called “Entry,” stated the workshop dealt with the “the entry process” into the superintendency, “leading with the board to create a culture of teaching and learning”, “working with the Department of Education”, and the “superintendents role as ethical leader, team build(er),” the “superintendent as advocate,” and “wellness for school leaders.”
Columbia, South Carolina – Richland County Public Schools hired Dance as its keynote speaker for the school system’s 2015 Summer Leadership Academy which occurred one week after his Harrisburg stint. An agenda provided by the school system showed that on July 29, 2015, Dance spoke about “Courageous Leadership” and strategies for leading schools with courage. Dance also led a breakout session called “Courageous Principals” which discussed leaders having the courage to make tough decisions, while taking “difficult actions.”
The agenda stated, “Our keynote speaker, Dr. Dance, will provide strategies for leading schools with courage. Emphasis will be placed on the importance of placing student and adult learning at the center; striving to build a strong and united team; and being an instructional leader.”
Although an official for school system originally told The Baltimore Post that Dance was hired through a speaker’s bureau by a staff committee, when pressed for more information, system officials retracted the statement.
Payment was made directly to Dance in the amount of $ 5,768.97, which included travel expenses. Dance was hired for the job two months after the new superintendent took the helm. Both education leaders have ties to Richmond, Virginia.
Washington, D.C. – The Post reported last month that Dance accepted payment from the American Institutes of Research (AIR), a behavioral and social science research and evaluation organization that later did business with Baltimore County schools.
Dance worked as a consultant for AIR sometime in 2015 and was paid $1,500 for the job. Then, in the spring of 2017, Baltimore County’s education board approved a no-bid $750,000 contract, piggybacking on an unrelated agreement Chicago Public Schools had with the vendor.
The Baltimore Sun reported on an additional $750,000 contract Baltimore County secured after Dance left the system.
AIR released a statement to the Baltimore Post about Dance’s work, “The American Institutes for Research frequently works with consultants as part of its delivery of services to clients. The consultants are independent contractors and are not employees of AIR. Thus, they are solely responsible for reporting any payments they receive from AIR to other organizations or businesses to which they are affiliated and to local and federal tax authorities. Additionally, any organizations that contract for work with AIR are responsible for following appropriate procurement procedures, policies, and regulations.”
Before resigning from the school system in April 2017, Dance filed his 2016 financial disclosure forms. While he was required to name the organizations for which he worked, a change made it so he was no longer required to disclose the income.
That year, Dance reported work for the University of Richmond, Mathematica Policy Research and the Education Research and Development Institute.
Discussions with a few officials at the various organizations named in Dance’s indictment reveal he was a highly respected inspirational leader and speaker. Observations about the young education leader were consistent – and all of them kind.
Dr. Dance is presumed innocent unless and until there is a conviction. Update: Dance pleaded guilty to perjury charges on March 8. His plea was for five years with all but 18 months suspended. Dance could face up to five years. The judge will determine his sentence which is scheduled for April 20.