—- By: Ann Costantino —-
When Baltimore County Public Schools’ former Superintendent S. Dallas Dance learned his fate on April 20, the message was clear: that financial disclosure documents – signed under penalty of perjury – are serious business.
But a week after the former superintendent would be sentenced to jail on that day for lying on his forms, and during discussions about a procurement audit triggered by media reports on questionable employee-school vendor ties, Baltimore County Public Schools’ ethics and law office would purge nearly 2,400 financial disclosure statements for approximately 350 past and current employees — and for the first time in its recorded history.
The documents would be discarded legally, but up until that point had been retained by the system for over twenty years. The system is only required – by its own self-determined policy – to retain employees’ financial disclosure records for four years.
But the timing – not the legality of the massive purge – is the question.
And while the question is not just why then, but also just why, The Baltimore Post does not know the answer to either. Since the school system stopped answering The Post’s questions about financial disclosure anomalies in June, it only has its own records, timeline and now other media reports to go by.
But some media reports don’t ring as exactly true. I mean, I was there.
Herein lie the facts:
In February, The Baltimore Post requested the financial disclosure statements for seven members of the system’s central office staff. In March, The Post requested more. In April, even more. In June, more still.
Discovered were changes made on some employees’ financial documents, in what appears to have been in a knee-jerk fashion, amid the discovery of Dance’s criminal investigation, charges and sentencing.
The Post reporter (me) also discovered nepotism, previously unreported education consulting companies, mistakenly discarded and missing-in-action disclosure documents, recent disclosures of keynotes and consulting gigs, and amendments to documents made one year, two years, three years and even four years after their original filing.
Also discovered were blatant conflicts, subtle conflicts, omissions, additions, and over-and-under-zealous admissions.
But as time went on with the requests for more and more financial disclosure statements, what was also noticed was that requests for those documents for certain years were becoming “hit or miss,” in that record years were available for some employees at some points of the record inspection, and unavailable for other employees at later dates.
On August 3, The Post requested the financial disclosure destruction log. On August 9, the 56 page document was received. On August 10, The Baltimore Post published the first of four reports on the mass document purge.
Yet over the last two days, reports are now surfacing that make it seem as though everything is copasetic.
But is it?
The first implication is that the school board had been informed of the mass purge proactively. And quotes published by other media by the system’s attorney and school board chair ring as though it’s all much ado about nothing. The second implication is that we all now need to concentrate on the inconvenience of retaining records after a directive to stop purging them morphed into a directive to torture principals and teachers.
In a report by The Baltimore Sun yesterday, the reporter wrote, “School system attorney Margaret-Ann F. Howie wrote to members of the board in mid-August saying her office began getting rid of documents because it was running out of space to house them all.”
The Sun reporter then wrote, “School board chair Edward Gilliss said the ‘records retention policy has been in existence for a long time and the culling of financial the forms was consistent with the policy and had no relation to the external audit process. There was no nefarious purpose.’”
The Sun reporter continued, “Because questions had been raised about the shredding, the board decided to send out the directive last Friday, he said.”
“’My impression was that the board was ensuring that all records now available would still be available,’ Gilliss said.”
(Is this another Towson Tree-Gate scandal?)
While district policy mandates that the school system retain the records for at least four years, and the records were discarded within the bounds of the law, Baltimore County schools had not begun to discard any financial disclosure records, except in one case after an apparent “clerical error,” until its April 27th mass document purge that occurred amid a fight about a procurement audit that had been playing out in the media.
And to make matters worse, in August, after that long-awaited procurement audit was underway, an additional 200 would also be destroyed.
Yet the law office would not inform the school board of the purge until The Baltimore Post requested, received, and then reported on the mass purge of legal records.
Contrary to the implication stated in some media reports that the system’s law office proactively informed Baltimore County’s school board of the mass purge, The Baltimore Post believes it was pushed to do so.
Pushed by reports that question the obvious: Is this strange timing or what?
To purge the very type of records that are in place to disclose conflicts of interest? During a hotly contested procurement audit? After – not one, but two – Baltimore County schools officials were indicted or convicted of crimes against the school system?
Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that in excess of 300 records were also purged on 8/1. The correct amount was actually 200. In all, roughly 2,600 financial disclosure statements were purged by Baltimore County schools’ law office in April and August.