Newly discovered records by The Baltimore Post show that former Baltimore County Public Schools superintendent, Dr. S. Dallas Dance, had previously undisclosed ties with the ringleaders of an educational consulting firm scandal in Chicago.
Dance, who suddenly resigned his post on April 18, 2017, is reportedly under criminal investigation by the Maryland State Prosecutor for a similar scheme here.
The proprietors of the Chicago-based firm, SUPES Academy, conspired to pay Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the head of Chicago Public Schools, a 10% kickback for each school system contract she steered to the firm. (SUPES is a shorthand name for superintendent and not an acronym.)
The contracts totaled over $23 million.
Byrd-Bennett and her partners, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, all pleaded guilty in federal court this spring and received sentences ranging from 18 months to seven years.
Ten days after Dance’s sudden resignation, Byrd-Bennett was sentenced. And while Vranas and Byrd-Bennett entered the prison system in August, Solomon is scheduled to surrender to a state penitentiary later this week, right on the heels of reports about Dance’s criminal investigation.
Late last week, sources revealed an investigation into a similar $875,000 no-bid contract that Baltimore County Public Schools had with the Chicago-based consulting firm. The contract was pushed by Dance five months after he was hired as the system’s superintendent. Yet what was not publicly known at the time the contract was signed, was Dance’s apparent ties to Byrd-Bennett, as well as Vranas and Solomon.
Dance and Byrd-Bennett apparently knew each other as early as 2011 when Dance, who was working at the Houston Independent School District, took a training course at SUPES Academy. He recalled in a 2015 interview that Byrd-Bennett was one of his most influential teachers. Dance called her “extremely genuine.”
Events would later show that the two became good friends.
Dance started work at the Baltimore County job on July 1, 2012, and Chicago tabbed Byrd-Bennett as its leader on October 12, 2012. Six days later Dance tweeted, “Always feels good to a get a hug from Barbara Byrd-Bennett CEO of Chicago Public Schools! A great collaborative leader!”
A few weeks later, Dance would recommend the $875,000 no-bid SUPES Academy contract to Baltimore County’s Board of Education contract committee. And at their December 4, 2012 meeting, the full Board approved it.
Presumably Byrd-Bennett was to receive a 10% kickback for this contract.
In 2013, The Baltimore Sun reported Dance’s ties to the consulting firm, exposing his moonlighting as a master teacher for Chicago principals. Dance’s financial disclosure forms did not disclose the position.
Dance resigned from the position after initially defending the side job.
But The Baltimore Post has found that Dance had apparently also worked for Synesi, a sister company of SUPES Academy at the time. Dance again did not list Synesi on his financial disclosure forms.
Synesi, a school-turnaround company, focused on fixing underperforming schools through the use of consultants and vendors. Its template – or “turnaround kit” – was written by Byrd-Bennett. In 2013, Synesi pitched its school consultant services to the Illinois State Board of Education, advertising Dance as one of its consultants and “recently engaged team members.”
In 2013, then reporter for Catalyst Chicago, Sarah Karp, wrote the story that would lead to a federal investigation into SUPES Academy when she reported on a controversial $20 million sole-sourced contract for Chicago Public Schools. The report, later to be picked up by The Baltimore Sun, outed Dance as a consultant for SUPES Academy, triggering an ethics investigation by Baltimore County’s ethics panel.
In 2014, the panel found Dance to be in violation of his contract for not disclosing the side job, but they failed to focus on the issue Maryland’s State Prosecutor is now investigating: the $875,000 contract with SUPES Academy.
Further questions remain about travel expenses charged to Baltimore County Public Schools.
School system financial records obtained by The Post show that someone charged the school system in 2013 for multiple airline tickets, as well as for renting rooms at the upscale Hotel Sax in Chicago.
The charges, listed in school system records as five different billings, were made for trips between May and July around the time of some of the various SUPES Academy training sessions. The total cost of the hotel bills was $3,000.
The school system has ignored a request to release the documentation for these charges.
The Baltimore Post filed an open records request for the documents six months ago, but the school system did not respond. The Baltimore Post then filed a complaint with the Maryland Ombudsman on May 24 arguing that the school system is not complying with the state Public Information Act. That complaint is pending.
The school system’s refusal to release its financial records follows at least two other instances over the last four years when school officials chose not to probe allegations of wrongdoing by Dance.
Two years ago, when news of the federal investigation in Chicago on SUPES Academy reached Baltimore news, David Uhlfelder, then school board chair, told The Baltimore Sun “I can’t see any reason why the board should take a second look into the issue,” he said. “It appears that the situation in Chicago is vastly different.”
Lawrence E. Schmidt, former Board member and chair during the time Dance brought the SUPES Academy contract to the district, had said in 2013 that Dance should have received the Board’s permission before taking the side job. Schmidt, however, had neglected to question the ethics of the superintendent working for a school system vendor, and failed to question the steps that led to the $875,000 contract with the consulting firm.
Both men have been widely criticized for foregoing objective data analysis in favor of praising Dance and his initiatives during Dance’s five year tenure.
Schmidt did not respond to The Baltimore Post’s request for comment.
Mr. Uhlfelder told The Post that he was among many Board members interviewed by the State Prosecutor’s Office. He said that prosecutors also reviewed Larry Schmidt’s lengthy December 2013 video comments on the matter, but that he was unsure if Schmidt had also been interviewed.
Uhlfelder said that prosecutors asked him questions related to Dance’s 2014 ethics violation to “generally try to understand the Board’s thought process at the time.” He said that he told the prosecutors that the matter had been “reviewed by the ethics review panel and that he believed it was an ethical problem and not a criminal problem.”
Uhlfelder then said about SUPES, “what I do remember is that it involved some kickback to pay somebody in the education system.” He then went on to say that the situation in Chicago was different than the one in Baltimore County because, he said, “to my knowledge, Dallas Dance never received any money. And if he if he had received any money,” Uhlfelder continued, “it would have gone to enhance the Education Foundation.”
In December of 2013, Dance told The Baltimore Sun that he planned “to donate $10,000 of the $15,000 he is earning from SUPES to the Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools.” He said “the rest would go to pay for his travel expenses to and from Chicago.”
Baltimore County’s Education Foundation accepts donations used to provide financial resources for programs to support Baltimore County Public School scholarships and initiatives.
Last week The Baltimore Sun reported that school officials had not received any money from Dance’s SUPES earnings. When told this by The Post, Uhlfelder said “I would hope that he would have honored his commitment.”
A spokesman for Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt said that the office could not confirm nor deny if Dance was under investigation, but that press releases are issued when there are developments that lead to prosecutions.
A call to the Illinois State Prosecutor’s office was not immediately returned.
Dallas Dance did not respond to The Post with comment.