—– By: Ann Costantino —–
A fourth attempt to confirm Interim Superintendent Verletta White as Baltimore County Public Schools’ (BCPS) permanent superintendent involved a road trip to Annapolis on Wednesday. It was the continuation of a struggle that first began at the system’s Greenwood headquarters in Towson last year.
Former Baltimore County school board members, a political group, education and business association leaders and a Baltimore County councilman made an appearance in support of Senate Bill 222 which seeks to limit Maryland State Superintendent Karen Salmon’s authority when it comes to disapproving local superintendents for permanent placement.
Approval by the state superintendent is a required step for local superintendent appointees, and the bill specifically aims to prevent the superintendent from disapproving local appointees for reasons other than if those appointees fail to meet the minimum required qualifications for the position.
If passed as law, the move would limit Salmon’s – and any subsequent state superintendents’ – authority to disapprove an appointee for any other reason, including immorality, misconduct, insubordination, incompetency, or willful neglect of duty. The bill does not change a state superintendent’s ability to remove a local superintendent.
But even before Baltimore County’s new school board has considered candidates for its next permanent leader, education leaders from the county and across the state are attempting to remove the obstacle that could block White from being approved should the majority of the board later vote to make her the system’s next permanent superintendent.
Parents, grandparents, business and association leaders, as well as members from the Democratic Central Committee came in support of the bill. Former school board member and vice chair, Marisol Johnson, was called to testify in favor of the bill, but left the room before the bill’s introduction. But another former member and vice chair, Nicholas Stewart, spoke in favor of the bill, along with Baltimore County Councilman Julian Jones and representatives from the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and the Association of Public School Superintendents of Maryland.
While there was written opposition to the proposed law, no one signed up to oppose it with verbal testimony.
Jones, Stewart and others testified in support of the bill – and of White, in particular.
Jones called Salmon’s previous decisions not to approve White “arbitrary and capricious” and said, “for one person to make that decision is wrong, disrespectful, and amounts to nothing more than straight tyranny.”
Stewart said, “The point is that the state superintendent stated that she has the ultimate authority over our decision, that she could reject it for any reason of her choosing… and, importantly, that we have to come back to her with an appointee who meets her particular desires.”
Stewart’s remarks to senators referenced a ruling last year by the State Board of Education that affirmed Salmon’s authority to disapprove White specifically, after Stewart and another Baltimore county School board member challenged Salmon’s authority when she declined to approve White.
The state board’s actual response did not include the assertions made by Stewart. That response, obtained by The Baltimore Post through a Maryland Public Information Act request, can be viewed here, and concluded with an Advisory Opinion that, “the Superintendent’s authority to disapprove a county board’s appointment of a local superintendent extends beyond a review of the three statutory qualifications and can include other reasons.”
Wednesday was Stewart’s fourth attempt challenging Salmon on her decision regarding White, even though the current school board just began a national search on Tuesday, when it approved a contract for up to $100,000 with search firm, Ray & Associates.
White is still able to reapply for the permanent position for consideration by the school board.
S. Dallas Dance, PhD.
Stewart, who represented the first council district until his term expired last December, was also a staunch supporter of former Superintendent S. Dallas Dance. Stewart worked at the same law firm as Dance’s then-girlfriend when he voted for Dance’s contract renewal in 2016 – one year before the embattled superintendent left the system amid a criminal investigation.
Dance perjured himself when he chose not to disclose roughly $147,000 dollars in income he earned consulting for other school systems, organizations and vendors for which BCPS had contracts. He served four months in a Virginia jail and was released last August.
After he left the district, White took on the role of interim. White has served for one and a half years in the role, but has wanted the permanent position. So had the majority of the former board members who voted for her twice.
But in order for White’s appointment to have been solidified, Salmon would have to give her the okay.
Salmon did not approve White, citing two reasons: One for ethics violations related to White’s failure to disclose income she earned as a consultant for an education consulting firm; and the other for a failure to either initiate or complete an audit of the school system’s procurement practices and technology contracts, following widespread concerns related to inappropriate vendor and employee ties after two former BCPS employees were charged for criminal misconduct.
White had initiated a review of procurement practices in September 2017, yet the review would not begin. It was only after reports by The New York Times and Baltimore Sun questioned employee relationships when legislators, board members and the public demanded an audit of the system’s procurement practices.
A draft version of that audit was recently presented to school board leadership, but is still being completed by auditors. The Baltimore Sun was first to report the story on the draft audit.
But one month after Salmon declined White’s appointment the first time last April, and without regard for Salmon’s reasons, the Baltimore County school board again submitted White’s name for consideration.
In response, Salmon doubled-down and declined White a second time for the same two reasons.
But Salmon was not alone in her concerns.
Four members of the previous school board, who were joined by dozens of stakeholders who wrote letters in opposition of White’s appointment, cited the same ethical lapses used by Salmon when she made her decision.
Kathleen Causey, Roger Hayden and Julie Henn all began second terms on the board in December. Ann Miller, an outspoken member, is no longer on the board. The group was joined by parents and advocates who asked Salmon not to affirm White for the permanent position. Causey, who now chairs the board, did not respond to a request for comment.
But White has steadfastly maintained that, unlike her predecessor, she never meant to mislead with the omission on her financial disclosure statements. Instead, she said she was confused by the instructions on the forms.
During Dance’s sentencing, State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt also made a distinction between the actions of Dance and White.
In defense of his client, Dance’s attorney, Jay Graham, brought up White’s name three times during the legal proceeding, stating, “She did exactly the same thing.”
But, according to a report by WBAL-TV, Davitt disagreed and said that what Dance did “was a clear motivation to deceive.” Of White, Davitt said, “From that sense it seems very different from anything else that I’ve heard.”
White also did not hide from the controversy, choosing to face the criticism head-on. White met with numerous lawmakers, some members of the media and even wrote a Baltimore Sun Op-Ed [BCPS interim superintendent: My integrity is not for sale] for which the school system won an Award for Excellence in communications from the Chesapeake Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association.
Yet the public’s memory of White’s ethics violations and connection to the education technology vendors – or even Dallas Dance – has not faded. But neither has the desire of White’s supporters who want her to be approved for the permanent position.
So when Salmon failed to approve White for the second time, Stewart and then-Board Chair Ed Gilliss tried a different tactic and asked for a Petition for Declaratory Ruling, challenging Salmon on her authority to disapprove local superintendent candidates for anything except minimum professional qualifications.
School board attorney, Andrew Nussbaum, sent the request for the ruling, asking for the State Board of Education’s interpretation of the law Salmon used when faced with making the decision.
But, in response, Salmon and the board tripled-down and, in a December 4, 2018 letter, cited the state statute that gave her the authority when she declined White twice before:
“Qualifications: An individual may not be appointed as a county superintendent unless the individual is eligible to be issued a certificate for the office by the State Superintendent; has graduated from an accredited college or university and has completed 2 years of graduate work at an accredited college or university, including public school administration, supervision, and methods of teaching.”
White meets those qualifications. And more.
Also a doctoral candidate, White is known as a homegrown talent – first a student, then a teacher and principal, and finally an administrator in Baltimore County Public Schools’ central office. She worked her way up to the system’s Chief Academic Officer before stepping in for Dance, and has dedicated her 25-year professional career to education.
White has also participated in listening tours around the county to consider feedback from various communities.
But the statute, cited by Salmon, also stated that the appointment of a county superintendent is “not valid unless approved in writing by the State Superintendent” and if that state superintendent disapproves an appointment, then that superintendent “shall give … reasons for the disapproval in writing to the county board.”
While Salmon did that twice, what Stewart, Jones and other education leaders want now is to limit the state superintendent’s authority and give it back to local school boards.
If passed, the law would take effect on July 1.
While a statewide bill, certain sections do not apply to Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. The House version of the bill is scheduled for a hearing on February 14.
Feb. 9, 2019 at 10:27am – An earlier version of this article stated that Baltimore County school board member, Cheryl Pasteur, attended the education committee hearing in support of Senate Bill 222. While members of the audience, who were in support of the bill, were asked by Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam to stand and introduce themselves, Ms. Pasteur was there doing her job as the chair of the Legislative and Government committee for the school board. She was invited and motioned by the Senator to introduce herself. Ms. Pasteur, and other board members, will continue to attend many more such meetings in service to BCPS.
Feb. 8, 2019 at 6:35pm – In a previous version of this story, it was stated that members of the NAACP came in support of the bill. Baltimore County NAACP members who were in attendance at the hearing, were not there in the capacity to represent the NAACP. Moreover, during a phone call with Mr. Ray Moseley, the president of the Randsallstown Chapter of the NAACP, Mr. Moseley told The Baltimore Post that although he was unaware of Senate Bill 222, he would have been in support of it. This article has been updated.