—– By: Ann Costantino —–
Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) obtained certified “shred and destroy” records for at least one quarter million pounds of shredded documents last year, but those “Certificates of Destruction” documents for the roughly 2,600 financial disclosure statements secretly destroyed on April 27 and August 1 are not among them.
While the school system’s law office said they destroyed the documents on the two days, there doesn’t appear to be any official “shred certificate” record of the occurrences, which appears to be a standard practice for the system.
In a response to a Maryland Public Information Act request sent to The Baltimore Post late Friday afternoon, the system’s law office said there are no responsive documents which detail the shredding of the financial disclosure records with the official certificates.
However, certificates were provided to The Baltimore Post late last year for 12 document purges that officially recorded the shredding of documents from BCPS’s Office of Logistics. The 12 purges included 274,370 pounds of shredded material destroyed throughout 2018.
Because it is now unclear precisely when during The Baltimore Post’s requests for financial disclosure statements the purges actually occurred, it is not known how this impacted the reporter’s inability to receive certain records and if they were destroyed before or after the statements were requested.
From February to August 2018, The Baltimore Post requested roughly eight dozen financial disclosure statements for dozens of central office employees who are required to file the statements annually. At various points, some requests were unable to be fulfilled due to their unavailability.
At points during the requests, The Post reporter, who was unaware of the document purges at the time, was restricted from obtaining some records – for years 2012 and 2013 – when told they had been destroyed in accordance with the school system’s document retention policy.
Although BCPS has a 4-year financial disclosure document retention schedule, the school system retained thousands of records – some dating back to 1997 – until the system’s chief legal counsel, Margaret-Ann Howie, said she and her staff decided in February 2018 that her office had run out of room to house the documents, an email record shows.
The Baltimore Post began requesting the records less than three weeks after former Superintendent Dallas Dance was indicted on perjury charges in January 2018. Dance had provided misleading information on the same type of forms.
The statements – which are roughly 16 pages each – are signed under penalty of perjury and are designed to capture employees’ financial interests and connections outside of the school system.
Dance was convicted on four counts of perjury when he failed to disclose roughly $147,000 in income he earned working as a consultant and speaker in 2012, 2013 and 2015.
Roughly $90,000 of the income was earned working for two school system vendors: The SUPES Academy (mostly paid through SUPES’ sister company Synesi Associates) and the American Institutes for Research (AIR). AIR has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
After experiencing a few unexplained anomalies and a longer-than-usual delay after requesting several financial statements in late June, The Baltimore Post requested the school system’s financial disclosure statement destruction “log.”
On Aug 9, 2018, that document – officially called the “Board of Education of Baltimore County Certificate of Records Destruction” – was provided. It showed that, for the first time in BCPS’s recorded history, the law office made use of district policy and destroyed the financial records that were older than four years. The document showed that nearly 2,400 financial statements were destroyed on April 27, and 200 more were discarded on Aug 1.
According to that document, the timing of the purges occurred while lawmakers and board members debated the scope of a widely requested procurement audit of the system’s contracts, to weed out possible inappropriate vendor and employee ties.
That audit is currently underway and, according to a BCPS press release, is scheduled to be released in a matter of weeks.
Calls for the audit were triggered in the fall of 2017 after a pair of articles by The New York Times and Baltimore Sun raised questions about Dance’s and interim Superintendent Verletta White’s connection to Illinois-based education consulting firm, the Education Research and Development Institute – or ERDI.
ERDI arranges meetings with its clients – many of whom are education technology vendors – with education leaders from across the country.
ERDI executives say the meetings allow education leaders to improve their clients’ products and services by providing a space and time for those leaders to give their clients valuable feedback. Yet some school systems across the country feel the meetings violate ethics guidelines since ERDI pays superintendents up to $2,000 per meeting to meet with their clients who, in turn, pay ERDI thousands of dollars in membership fees which grant clients different levels of access to the education leaders.
ERDI’s membership fees vary based on the membership level chosen by the company’s client/vendors. Their clients pay more to meet with more superintendents and other education leaders.
The Baltimore Post reported in November 2017, that one vendor saw the opportunity as a chance to “pitch” to superintendents – including Dance – who the vendor selected at its number one choice to meet at a February 2016 ERDI conference in Tucson, Arizona, records show. Records obtained by The Baltimore Post also show that ERDI’s clients rank which education leaders with whom they wish to meet, using a 1-10 scale.
The Times was first to report that Dance met with two ERDI clients, technology vendors whose contracts increased within months of the meeting.
The Times also was first to reveal interim Superintendent White’s connection to ERDI. The connection exposed that White also had failed to disclose income on her financial documents. Although White would later be zinged with ethics violations connected to the omission, she has not been accused of any crime.
But calls for an audit heightened when Dance was indicted and later admitted to lying on his financial disclosure forms. He served four months in jail for the crime and was released in August.
The timing of the record purges only added to concerns.
According to the financial disclosure destruction log, years 2012 and 2013 were destroyed in the purported April and August purges. But the official “shred” certificates, which are provided by shredding companies hired by the school system, do not exist for April, and BCPS says they don’t exist at all for the financial document purges.
The legal documents are designed to capture conflicts of interest and asks employees to list any extra income, side jobs, positions, ties to vendors, as well as any gifts received.
The school system has refused to answer The Baltimore Post’s questions regarding the record purges. As a result, specific details about them, and how they were conducted, are not known.
This story will be updated.