Op-ed by Joanne C. Simpson
Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance will be wrapping up his tenure soon after the school year ends, but not before he has charged a litany of travel costs to the district that seem contrary to school system policies and federal guidelines.
Travel records obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request reveal an apparent pattern of overspending on superintendent trips to panels and presentations at education-technology conferences and other events across the United States and East Asia.
The tally for just five of those trips: more than $10,800 paid for by taxpayers.
Last year, Dance’s presence at the SXSWedu tech conference on March 6-9 in Austin, for example, included a 3-night stay at the 4-star Hilton Austin, at a rate of $328 per night plus taxes, totaling $1,187 in district-covered hotel charges.
The BCPS-reimbursed trip total: $2,360, including a $715 flight from BWI to Austin.
A request for comment by the superintendent or school district officials regarding such expenses was not returned. Dance has previously said his travel to such events are for official school district business.
Yet such expenditures for the superintendent, who recently resigned without explanation one year into his second four-year contract, seem out of line for a system where nearly half of its 112,000 students qualified last year for free or reduced price meals—many living under the federal poverty level of $20,420 for a family of three.
Dance was hired in July 2012 at a yearly salary of $255,000 plus benefits. Last year, his annual salary jumped to $287,800 plus benefits under a new 4-year contract. There could have been some leeway on expense amounts covered; Dance’s initial contract vaguely noted that “reasonable business expenses” would be reimbursed “upon approval of the Board.” Yet few if any travel expenses apparently came before the school board for such review in recent years, officials say. (The superintendent’s mid-2016 contract, signed after an ethics complaint that cited his travel, changed that process going forward to “approval of the Board Chair.”)
Superintendent travel expenditures for various trips also do not align with reimbursement rules for BCPS employees. Under BCPS Rule 3126 in effect by 2016, “pre-approved travel expenses” for employees’ hotel lodging is reimbursed “as compared to federal general services administration [GSA] per diem rates for the appropriate location.” (Meals are “based on actual” GSA per diem, or $59 in March 2016). Dance’s hotel charges for various trips were double or even triple such rates.
The GSA’s per diem rates for hotel lodging in Austin would have allotted him $159 per night instead of the $328 per night that was spent.
Such trips are among 35 or more out-of-state events where Dance spoke mostly about the nearly $300 million BCPS digital initiative known as STAT, or Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow. The superintendent has presented before audiences in Houston; Seattle; Phoenix; San Simeon, Calif.; and Gyeongju in the Republic of Korea, among other cities, records show.
If the bulk of travel was reimbursed by BCPS, at an apparent average up to $2,000 per few-day trip, superintendent expenses since mid-2012 might surpass $50,000. Will BCPS release all such travel-related records in the public interest (and waive high fees) to reveal the actual tally?
Overall BCPS employee travel costs, which have been questioned by a few members of the Board of Education, remain unclear. BCPS expenditure databases reveal dozens of jaunts by employees, not listed by name, to such swanky hotels as SAX Chicago Hotel; the iconic luxe Fontainebleau Hotel in Florida (six 2012 trips: $5,250); and three apparent Las Vegas 5-star casinos and resorts: the “Venetian/Palazzo,” MGM Grand, and Red Rock Casino, Resort and Spa, according to sources familiar with the database.
BCPS staff travel, STAT, and other district budget items are currently under review by Baltimore County Council members, who are set to vote on the $1.7 billion proposed FY18 schools’ operating budget by the end of May. (More than half of county tax revenues is spent on public schools).
The county council should reconsider school spending priorities as an interim or new superintendent leads the district, with its many dire needs, which include teacher vacancies, transportation woes, buildings in need of renovation/replacement, and students’ food insecurity. Nearly all “areas of operation” have had funds redirected to STAT, records show. Almost $9 million under “budget realignment” for STAT is slated for next year.
In 2014, amid much fanfare, Dance launched the one-laptop-per-student STAT/digital initiative, whose “total costs” to the district, for the first several years alone, is listed at $257 million, according to BCPS’ updated “Digital Conversion Plan” (see p. 11). Not included in that budget are millions in curricula contracts, professional development, software license fees, and other digital initiative-related costs found elsewhere in the FY18 budget (see left column). The digital price tag would likely surpass $60 million a year. Every year.
From our students’ first keystrokes-and-clicks, STAT has been promoted far and wide. Just two months after laptops were issued in BCPS test schools, the superintendent flew to Korea to speak about STAT, including “Lessons Learned and Pitfalls to Avoid” at the ICT Global Symposium: “Transforming Education with 1:1 Computing,” an event co-sponsored by the World Bank.
Despite administration communications to school board members in spring 2016—which noted the Korea trip was not “BCPS paid,” according to official sources—the recently released records show BCPS reimbursed Dance’s $1,920 Korean Air flight.
Why so many outside conferences? The superintendent “agreed to devote his best efforts and all of his time and attention exclusively to the duties of County Superintendent of the School System,” his contracts show. Dance’s district spending priorities and extensive travel, much of which promotes edtech integration in schools, has seemed severely off base.
Other school leaders or CEOs have run into trouble over travel expenditures, including Fairfax County Public Schools, where charges of $12,000 led to the forced leave and a resignation for two school leaders in March, after a Fox 5 News investigation. And former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison resigned under a cloud in 2014, according to The Charlotte Observer.After a school district review of his travel-related spending, he was forced in 2015 to reimburse nearly $1,300 in costs deemed related to personal consulting.
Morrison, a fellow edtech panelist, is a senior vice president for McGraw-Hill Education, which has a 10-year $15.6 million no-bid contract spending authority with BCPS. By January 2017, fewer than three years into the contract, $8.4 million was already paid out, noted the administration.
Morrison is also a SUPES Academy participant. In February 2015, in a Q & A with SUPES, Dance lauded influential guest speakers during his training in 2011: “There were two: Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Heath Morrison. Both speakers were extremely genuine.” Byrd-Bennett was indicted later in 2015 in a years-long SUPES kickback scheme as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and sentenced a couple weeks ago to more than 4 years in prison.
In the Q & A, Dance—who was cited in 2014 for an ethics code violation related to a SUPES contract with BCPS, and a 2016 finding for failure to file financial disclosure statements for outside income—noted that “humility” was a No. 1 trait for school leaders.
As superintendent, Dance has been viewed as an energetic and forward-thinking leader. And in many ways he is. When he arrived, the district was behind in its technology offerings. Yet the version of tech integration now fostered, especially in elementary schools, has increasingly proven controversial.
A closer look at other trips also reveal that his “rock star” tendencies might have proven too much for our humble school district.
For the 2014 SXSWedu conference, Dance was reimbursed by BCPS for a Hilton Austin rate of $469 per night, plus taxes—nearly quadruple the GSA per diem; at that time BCPS Rule 3126 stipulated reimbursement of “actual hotel lodging expenses.” (SXSW makes Austin a popular destination that time of year, yet Hilton Austin rates for next year’s SWSWedu in March can be booked now for $220 per night, with other reasonable hotels available.)
While some of these charges are not exactly lavish, they aren’t fiscally sensitive either in a cash-strapped school system. And the events prompt other questions.
In July 2015, Dance traveled to San Simeon, Calif., to attend the CUE Super Symposium. The superintendent opened his presentation“Preparing Globally Competitive Graduates,” with “I absolutely love my ‘thought partners’ at Discovery Ed.” (Discovery Education is a BCPS vendor.)
For that talk, Dance was reimbursed by BCPS for a one-night charge of $331 at the oceanside Pelican Inn & Suites in Cambria, Calif. Dance’s air itinerary, including a red-eye flight booked just a couple weeks before, cost a whopping $1,094. Dance has done livestreams or panels from Discovery Ed’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., including a 2014 event to “explore ways to engage critical district stakeholders to support a successful digital conversion.”
Last year, the school board approved an expanded $10 million no-bid contract spending authority for Discovery Education, one of many digital curricula contracts under Rule 6002, which fosters such approval without bids for instructional material.
Some travel costs, reviewed under the public information act, were paid by the conference or its sponsors, such as $342 reimbursed to BCPS by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) for Dance’s flight in 2015. He was a keynote speaker for the “iNACOL Blended and Online Learning Symposium” at the Swan and Dolphin Resort, Walt Disney World in Orlando.
The superintendent and district have earned other awards or honors for tech integration from affiliates of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), as well as EdSurge, Digital Promise (a “Walk the Walk” award), and other organizations sponsored by edtech companies. Such sponsors include million dollar-plus BCPS vendors: Microsoft, Discovery Education, DreamBox Learning, Curriculum Associates (iReady), and Daly Computers (a Hewlett-Packard affiliate awarded the $205 million contract spending authority for the HP EliteBook student devices in 2014).
Still, nearly three years after STAT’s launch, there’s no objective evidence of significant improved learning outcomes for BCPS students, as independent reports show is a trend across the country for online or “blended learning.” And the district’s 2016 PARCC standardized test scores were lower than those of other counties in the region.
Overall, a thorough outside audit of BCPS spending and STAT is needed, and the school board should consider financial priorities in future superintendent contracts and policies. A 2015 Maryland legislative Audit Report strongly recommended that BCPS “amend its existing policies to require competitive procurement methods.” As the appendix noted: “It helps ensure fairness and integrity in the expenditure of public funds.”
In the end, who is really being served by STAT? Consider a few titles for Dance’s various panels: “Educator Pushback: What Do We Need to Understand” and “Is Education Policy Stifling Digital Innovation?”
The real question we need to understand is this: Is digital innovation stifling our children’s education instead?
Joanne C. Simpson is a former staff writer for The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Johns Hopkins Magazine. She is a BCPS parent, college educator, and freelance writer based in Baltimore.