Directive to freeze Baltimore County Schools’ record purges amid procurement audit breeds fear of logjam
Posted by Ann Costantino on 29th August 2018
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—– By: Ann Costantino —–

Photo Source: Shutterstock / The Baltimore Post

A school board directive delivered by Baltimore County Public Schools’ interim Superintendent Verletta White last week, which ordered the cessation of all record purges, is breeding fears of a system-wide logjam.

But the reaction to a particular aspect of the directive may be serving to deflect from the actual reason for it.

That reason: to stop the destruction of records amid a procurement audit after reports surfaced that Baltimore County schools’ ethics department purged nearly 2,400 financial disclosure documents in April, and an additional 315 more in August. The Baltimore Post broke the mass document purge story earlier this month.

Yet, while the mandate intends to preserve records during the audit, some system leaders fear it will cause an undue burden on employees, overwhelming them with emails and documents.

Ann Miller, the board member who says she made the motion to cease record purges during a long-awaited procurement audit of the system, says it was her motion on which the school board voted and passed last week.

It was the motion she says that led to the interim superintendent’s directive to school system staff.

On her official school board Facebook page, Miller wrote last week, “At the 8/21/18 board meeting, the board passed my motion below with regard to the destruction of BCPS documents in advance of an external audit.

‘Motion: The board directs the interim superintendent and all BCPS personnel to immediately cease and desist in the routine or non-routine destruction of any and all school system documents and records until the conclusion of the external procurement audit AND until further direction by the board with regard to record retention.’”

Miller, an at large member of the board, was appointed to the school board by Governor Larry Hogan in 2015.

In the directive sent via email last Friday afternoon, White, citing the school board’s directive, instructed all school district employees to stop destroying all records.

White wrote, “The Board of Education has directed that all BCPS personnel immediately cease the routine or non-routine destruction of any and all school system documents and records until further direction by the board with regard to record retention.”  The records she meant included emails – even those referred to as “spam.”

But the order has concerned even the executive director of Baltimore County’s principals’ association – C.A.S.E. or the Council of Administrative and Supervisory Employees – who has honed in on email retention as problematic, specifically.

In a letter to the board, shared also with his association’s members, C.A.S.E. Exec. Director Tom DeHart said, “… I am contacting each of you out of great concern for the new policy regarding deletion of emails by system employees. On Friday, August 24, 2018 superintendent white sent an email to all system employees requiring them to no longer delete any email from their inbox. This was done at the direction of the BCPS board members…One can only surmise why a directive was initiated by the Board, and at this time I prefer not to offer a theory. Rather, I will simply appeal to simple common sense.”

The Baltimore Post reached out to DeHart to ask him if he was aware of the financial record purge that occurred at the school system’s ethics and law department in April and August.  He did not respond.

DeHart continued in his letter, “This directive simply does not make sense. Do you as Board members not delete any email from the System, your job, or personal email? I would think not. It would impact your ability to function effectively. I’m hopeful that these unintended consequences will cause you to rethink this directive.”  DeHart’s entire message can be viewed here.

According to Baltimore County’s Electronic Document Retention Guidelines, employees must retain emails which are automatically deleted off the school system’s server after 90 days.  An exception to that rule are emails that are “transitory” in nature, which involve meeting dates and times, and are to be deleted by employees after a meeting is held.

Student and business emails, unless otherwise required by another Records Retention Schedule guideline, are also to be saved on the school system’s server or desktop.  But those emails are also automatically deleted after 90 days.

Since required email retention for “non-transitory” communications has always been in place, it is not clear how the board’s mandate will impact employees on a day-to-day basis, as DeHart fears for his association’s members.

But the email retention policy, as it has existed even before the board’s directive, has limited open record searches of the school system to three months.  With emails routinely destroyed every 90 days, access to those government records is limited to –exactly 90 days.

Under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) law, anyone can request government emails and documents.  However, for Baltimore County schools, only the prior three months’ worth are available and can be searched.  But, even that search does not come without a cost when requesting them from the school system’s MPIA and law office.

The Baltimore Post has requested emails from the school system on a number of occasions. But its law office says it must have its Information Technology (IT) staff write a “software query” in order to search through the emails.  In one instance, after requesting emails between two individuals over a one month period, the law office said its IT staff would need three hours to write the software that would only then be able to search through the 30 days of emails.

Without the to-be written software program, staff would be unable to provide the emails.  The cost to obtain 30 days of emails between two individuals: $212.00.  In another request which involved four individuals, the schools system requested nearly $500 in order to conduct the search.

Superintendent White’s order to immediately stop the destruction of all records – including emails – came three days after the board voted to support Miller’s motion to suspend further purging.  And Miller’s motion came on the heels of a Baltimore Post report that the system destroyed 2,400 financial disclosure records a week after former Superintendent S. Dallas Dance was sentenced to jail for perjury and at a time school board members argued over the scope of a procurement audit.

The Baltimore Post reported on the purge earlier this month after receiving the system’s financial disclosure statement destruction log, a document requested through a Maryland Public Information Act request.  A redacted version of the log can be viewed here.

While the school system is only required to retain financial disclosure documents for four years – and the records were destroyed legally – its ethics department held records from as early as 1997, records show.  The financial disclosure purge appears to be the first of its kind and occurred in the middle of – and during – discussions of an audit.  

The log revealed two purges: the first, the destruction of 2,400 records for roughly 350 past and current employees.  The second, a much smaller document purge occurred on August 1 and included the destruction of roughly 315 records, including a financial disclosure statement for John Mayo, the system’s human resources director who The Baltimore Post reported in June had appeared to have omitted a consulting job he had with The SUPES Academy, along with former superintendent Dallas Dance in 2013.

Dance was released on Monday from a Virginia jail after serving four months for failing to disclose $147,000 in income from his 2012, 2013 and 2015 financial disclosure statements.

The former superintendent earned the extra income moonlighting as a consultant and teacher for other school districts and companies while leading Baltimore County Public Schools. Roughly $90,000 of the unreported income came from SUPES Academy and an affiliate company, Synesi Associates.

But school officials, including Mayo, have not responded to multiple requests for comment about the omission. And, on Aug. 1, the 2013 document was removed from the system, records show.

The Baltimore Post has a copy of the document, along with roughly $300 worth of employees’ financial disclosure records.  The school system charges $.25 for each page of the financial disclosure documents.

But prior to the purges, records from 21 years ago had remained in Baltimore County schools’ records, with one exception.

Ryan Imbriale, the executive director of innovative learning amended his forms – in one case, a year and a half after first filing it.  Through that process, the originals were discarded which is a violation of the district’s four-year financial disclosure retention policy.  An employee from the district’s law office told The Baltimore Post that the hardcopies and the electronic versions were destroyed when his original disclosures were replaced with new versions. Andrew Nussbaum, an attorney who advises the ethics panel, later said it was a “one time clerical error.”

Only employees who have the authority to spend or direct the spending of system funds are required to file annual financial disclosure statements.  Although records are only required to be retained for four years, when a financial disclosure statement is amended, the four-year clock begins again.

The statements are signed under the risk of penalty of perjury, but forms can be amended at any time – and without limit – according to an employee from Baltimore County’s law office and ethics department, as well as the State Ethics Commission.

School officials, as well as legal counsel from Baltimore County schools, have ignored multiple requests for comment and clarification about the timing of April’s financial record purge.  They also will not say who ordered the purge – and why.

However, District Three board member, Kathleen Causey, did respond. “I am very concerned about the destruction of any ethics financial disclosure forms during the rigorous discussions of having an external audit.  And then for additional ones to be deleted in August after the audit was underway,” Causey said. “While it was asserted that it was legal, it certainly is not wise. And it certainly does not help the school system and the board restore public trust. I have a number of questions submitted to the board chair, since two weeks ago, that have not been answered about the purging of the documents.” 

The school board voted on a contract for an audit firm this May, after settling on details of the audit’s scope.

Calls for a procurement audit of the system began in November after reports by The New York Times questioned whether industry perks played a role in the awarding of the district’s technology contracts and possible vendor-employee ties. 

By design, financial disclosure statements – if filled out accurately – are intended to capture those relationships and provide full disclosure of possible conflicts of interest.

annc@thebaltimorepost.com