Baltimore County School Board Members’ Demand for Transparency Ruffles Feathers
Posted by Ann Costantino on 30th April 2019
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—– By: Ann Costantino –—-

Photo Credit: The Baltimore Post

Things are heating up at Baltimore County Public Schools as the system’s school board prepares to make a decision on the system’s next permanent leader. 

According to an article published by WYPR on Tuesday, two high-ranking school system officials have filed complaints against two outspoken members of the school board who, along with other school board members, have pressured the school system for more transparency around its procurement processes after the fall of Baltimore County schools’ former superintendent, Dallas Dance, PhD.

According to WYPR, in one complaint, the school system’s chief accountability officer, Russell Brown alleges “bullying, intimidation, and a hostile work environment.”  The other, filed on behalf of an investigator by the school system’s internal auditor, claims similar allegations.

Named in the complaint are elected members, Vice Chair Julie Henn and sixth district member, Lily Rowe.

According to the article, Brown says he now fears for his job, feeling targeted in part for his support of interim Superintendent Verletta White, who is vying for a permanent position among other candidates who have applied for the job.

The article and complaint reference part of a heated discussion on Twitter in which former school board vice chair and attorney, Nick Stewart, taunted Henn in a number of comments, later tweeting a post by Rowe about a contract procured in Brown’s department, of which Rowe challenged the contract’s legality without specifically naming Brown. Stewart’s term on the school board ended in December. Henn is serving her second term.  Rowe started her first term in December.

WYPR’s article also stated that “a verbal confrontation with board vice chair Julie Henn left (Brown) shaken…”

Since elected to the board, Henn, Rowe and some other members of the school board have pushed for transparency surrounding the system’s procurement processes. 

Henn, who said she cannot discuss nor comment on the investigations, recently posted on her board Facebook page that she and other board members are currently being denied access to publicly available bid documents concerning the purchase of computers.

But a reference to the contract’s posted by Rowe, in the WYPR story, did not delve into questions surrounding transparency or the actual contract. Unrelated to Brown’s involvement, both The Baltimore Post and Baltimore Sun reported on the questionable contract last year.

According to the school system’s procurement document, Brown is named on the contract in which the school system entered into a cooperative agreement using a Chicago Public Schools’ agreement with vendor, American Institutes for Research (AIR), for services different than those for Baltimore County schools.

Cooperative contracts – also known as “piggyback” contracts – are agreements that make use of another agency’s pre-negotiated terms and pricing. The contracts should mirror the products or services being sought.

The Baltimore Post reported on the contract last year as part of a lengthy investigation into roughly $147,000 of unreported income for consulting work conducted by Baltimore County schools’ previous superintendent, S. Dallas Dance.  Dance failed to disclose the income, $90,000 of which was paid to him by controversial school system vendor The SUPES Academy. 

Dance was convicted on four counts for perjury last year for lying on his financial disclosure statements.  He spent four months in jail and was released in August.

Included in Dance’s charging documents, prosecutors also found that the former superintendent earned $1,500 in 2015 from AIR.  The Baltimore Post first reported the payment was from a vendor.  But, unlike SUPES Academy, AIR is not accused of any wrongdoing.

In 2017, the Baltimore County school board approved a $750,000 no-bid contract, piggybacking on an unrelated agreement the Chicago Board of Education had with the vendor. 

According to an approved description of the contract, Baltimore County schools’ AIR contract included an evaluation of students on their second language acquisition program, as part of the system’s $7.5 million contract with Middlebury Interactive Languages under its “Passport Program.”

But the goods and services in the contracts appear vastly different and the use of the “piggyback” vehicle does not appear to be in accordance with the system’s own procurement terms relating to “piggybacking” contracts, a practice sometimes used by the school system.

Baltimore County schools’ use of this procurement method has been criticized by state legislative auditors in their 2015 audit of the school system. The system’s most recent procurement audit, released earlier this month, also found a lack of documentation and consistency of pre-proposal activities – such as those for vendor bids and request for proposals.

Unlike Baltimore County’s contact with the vendor, Chicago’s $494,360 AIR contract states its arrangement with AIR was intended to evaluate Chicago students’ “social-emotional” and “non-cognitive skills.” 

Records obtained by The Baltimore Post last year from the Chicago school system, through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that the system entered into the three-year agreement with AIR using a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to evaluate and refine support systems for Chicago Public Schools’ at risk youth. 

The 24 page contract can be viewed here.

In a second complaint, WYPR stated an “independent investigation into an alleged hostile work environment and intimidation is under way on behalf of Andrea Barr, the school system’s chief auditor.”

Unrelated to the complaints, in March, The Baltimore Post also filed a complaint with Barr and her Office of Internal Audit, alleging fraud after a Baltimore Post reporter was motioned to leave the system’s law office after a fire alarm was triggered.

The reporter was led out of a conference room in the midst of posing questions about the destruction of some of the system’s financial disclosure statements.

The reporter was the only one to evacuate the building, after which the alarm immediately ceased.

But according to the internal audit department, as of three weeks ago, an investigation into the complaint had not begun, but was “in queue” behind other complaints.  The Baltimore Post has been told it will not be notified of any findings of the investigation.

annc@thebaltimorepost.com