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Op-Ed: More than $60 million in BCPS contracts linked to controversial private clients

Op-Ed By Joanne C. Simpson,
For The Towson Flyer

At the heart of a widening scandal enveloping Baltimore County Public Schools is a company that apparently brokers access to superintendents. And in the case of BCPS, a shadowy trail might have led to more than $62 million in mostly no-bid digital curricula and related school contracts.

That DreamBox Math game fourth graders are playing? The Discovery Education “tech book” students could soon read on $1,400-plus laptop screens? The MAP testing that comes up again and again? These might be useful tools in some circumstances, but there’s also a good chance such technology offerings could severely strain the county’s cash-strapped public school system. And in some cases we might have networking conferences at pricey hotels in New Orleans or Nashville to blame.

The Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI), a private firm that connects company top brass with public school leaders, including BCPS administrators, lists about a dozen clients that have been awarded high-dollar contracts with BCPS, records show.

Those include Discovery Education ($10 million); Code to the Future ($987,000); NWEA, MAP-testing provider ($3.9 million); McGraw Hill ($15.6 million); Curriculum Associates/iReady ($3.2 million); DreamBox Learning ($3.2 million); and other for-profit companies whose multi-million dollar “contract spending authorities” were approved by the Baltimore County Board of Education over the past five years—under the tenure of former superintendent Dallas Dance. The contracts are currently in place. 

Chicago-based ERDI—which represents education-technology companies, as detailed by The New York Times and Baltimore Sun—sets up conference panel sessions between school leaders and company reps to discuss products, as well as how to better sell their wares to the K-12 marketplace.

According to ERDI’s website: “Panels of expert superintendents provide honest, candid insight and feedback that clients typically incorporate to upgrade their products and services and to modify their marketing plans . . . In addition to the panel session, ERDI conferences include different social events to help clients truly harness the power of networking with these top educational leaders.”

Panels of expert superintendents provide honest, candid insight and feedback that clients typically incorporate to upgrade their products and services and to modify their marketing plans.

What hasn’t been detailed so far in the press or elsewhere is a costly litany of BCPS contracts apparently held by ERDI-listed clients. Such contracts are linked primarily to BCPS’ digital initiative known as STAT (Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow). The experimental program, spearheaded by Dance, is approaching $260 million in confirmed “Total Costs” by 2018-19, according to the BCPS 6-year digital-conversion/STAT plan (budget p.11) That doesn’t include tens of millions in digital initiative-related expenditures, including software curricula and annual license fees, records show.

BCPS officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Some ERDI clients, also called “partners,” have garnered the same moniker in recent years by BCPS administrators. Yet questions about bias toward a private corporation’s goals — and a lack of impartiality about the ed-tech or other products that are used by students — can result. These are for-profit school vendors not “thought partners.” Whether there are ethical problems or not, we should follow the money. 

Hewlett-Packard, for example, is listed as a client of ERDI’s. (An HP reseller, Maryland-based Daly Computers, won a bid in 2014 for a$205 million contract to provide the pricey-yet-glitchy leased HP Elitebook Revolve laptops.) Last year, relative start-up Code to the Future, also on ERDI’s client list, was awarded a nearly $1 million no-bid contract for coding immersion magnet programs and related at the Chatsworth School and Cromwell Valley Elementary. Other familiar companies are Discovery Education, whose no-bid $4 million contract was upped by $6 million by the school board in September 2016—just for two more years—to $10 million, according to contract documents.

A “contract spending authority” means the administration can typically spend up to the amount listed, before going back before the school board. Many of the contracts were first approved at lower amounts, and expanded once, or even twice. Several are likely to grow substantially if the STAT program expands to all grades as planned in Fall 2018. Competitive bidding procedures were often not used, records show. Under a widely applied BCPS Superintendent Rule 6002, curricula is reviewed by a committee and approved by the superintendent. Some of the contracts, however, included services not covered in the policy, such as professional development and testing, according to contract documents. 

ERDI-listed ed-tech partners, who were awarded the $62 million or more, mostly started doing business with BCPS after 2012, when Dance was hired. A couple companies were bid out, including Middlebury Interactive Languages, the Spanish-language program ($7.5 million), as well as Engrade and related software for the BCPS One platform ($5.3 million). (Other ERDI client/partners include standard longtime vendors Pearson, Promethean, Apple Inc., and Blackboard. Such contracts are not included in the figure above). An outside audit would be needed to parse out exactly how much has been paid to these or other likely ERDI clients whose companies’ products might be in BCPS classrooms or “digital ecosystem.”

A primary ERDI partner, and a STAT centerpiece, is Discovery Education, whose $10 million BCPS contract includes video streaming, professional development, and “tech books.” Discovery Education offers an effervescent endorsement of ERDI.  “ERDI superintendents are amazingly insightful, passionate, and dedicated leaders! The input they have provided to our Discovery Education team members through the many years we have been ERDI Corporate partners has been invaluable,” said Coni Rechner, senior vice president, Discovery Education.

“ERDI creates panels consisting of Superintendents from various size school districts to provide consultation to the business partners on the ‘HOW TO’ market their particular product to school districts in the K-12 system.”

Investors also endorse ERDI: Says Thomas C. Cook, an investment adviser at QA3 Financial, LLC: “ERDI creates panels consisting of Superintendents from various size school districts to provide consultation to the business partners on the ‘HOW TO’ market their particular product to school districts in the K-12 system.”

The Times reported that two ERDI partner companies, Curriculum Associates, provider of iReady reading-oriented software at BCPS, and DreamBox Learning, which offers video game-based math lessons, were each awarded $2 million contract extensions a few months after meeting with Dance at a February ERDI conference in New Orleans.

Dance, who has been a paid panelist for ERDI, resigned as superintendent in June.

Both contracts were publicly backed by Interim Superintendent Verletta White, who spoke out in a June 13 school board meeting in support of the contracts after board members and parents questioned the high costs and lack of proven outcomes. White and others later cited vendor-provided “growth” and conflicting “achievement” data. Those contracts, totaling $6.4 million, were approved in July. White has also served as an ERDI panelist. It has not yet been determined if Dance or White consulted directly with other ERDI clients who were also BCPS vendors, and BCPS should provide that information.

In a Thursday memo to employees after the Sun reported that she failed to disclose the ERDI payments, White wrote: “The first thing I’d like to share is that I take great pride in being a person who strives to maintain high moral character every day.” She said any questioning of such integrity is “wrong,” and that she made a mistake and would remedy financial disclosure forms to indicate previously undisclosed ERDI payments. ERDI also provided superintendents with all-expense-paid trips to the conferences’ pricey hotels and resorts. What about disclosing the costs or values of flights, hotel rooms, meals, gifts, or swag?

White also noted: “In some instances, I was paid as a consultant to review and provide feedback on ideas for instructional products.  The superintendent, my supervisor, recommended and approved my participation in these opportunities.” 

On Friday, four school board members — Kathleen Causey, Roger Hayden, Julie Henn, and Ann Miller — sent out a press release requesting the board hold “an emergency administrative session to discuss Board action in response to major concerns raised by extensive media reports on the ethical issues surrounding BCPS relations with edtech vendors.”

ERDI-clients have been linked to controversy elsewhere. In Albuquerque’s Public School District, superintendent Winston Brooks was criticized a few years ago for an $11 million Discovery Education no-bid district contract for “tech books,” similar to BCPS’ contract. He later resigned under a cloud. Brooks was also a “paid consultant/advisor to ERDI,” a relationship detailed by the Albuquerque Journal in an article headlined “Brooks Doubles as Corporate Advisor.”

The story noted: “Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks spent most of this week in Denver, picking up an extra paycheck to advise companies that make educational products they sell to schools. The trip was paid for by the Education Research and Development Institute, a company with a long corporate client list that facilitates such meetings.” Brooks was paid $2,000 to do four panels at Denver’s luxury Brown Palace Hotel and Spa, which features French provincial-style guest rooms.

Other superintendents in Texas and elsewhere have been criticized for their ERDI connections. Most said they did not let their panel work influence school purchasing decisions. Few if any districts reported ERDI-partner contracts, especially as numerous as those at BCPS.

Dance is reportedly under investigation by the Maryland Office of the State Prosecutor, whose investigators have interviewed school board members regarding a BCPS contract with the SUPES Academy, for which Dance consulted. After a 2014 ethics violation finding related to SUPES, Dance said in a statement: “I will definitely be more sensitive to the importance of avoiding situations that can create conflicts, or even the appearance of a conflict, and will be more careful in the future.” Dance opted for a so-called “cure” to the violation, and he proposed “the prohibition against further consulting work.”

Taxpayer-funded BCPS superintendent travel to ed-tech conferences overall has raised controversy after being reported in May in the Towson Flyer, and recently in the Baltimore Sun, and the Times. Dance’s district-paid trips cost more than $30,000, records showed. Yet questions remain about a wider ed-tech travel and possible conflict-of-interest culture among BCPS staffers. In responses to board member questions, (p. 23) BCPS confirmed nearly $300,000 in “Other Charges” in the 2017-18 budget as slated for “travel, mileage, conferences, professional dues,” likely among a handful of administrators in the Office of the Superintendent.

Questions about similar “Other Charges” in various tech-oriented offices prone to travel have gone unanswered, despite repeated requests by school board members Miller and Causey, as well as county officials, since June.

This includes ongoing, numerous out-of-state presentations by Ryan Imbriale, executive director of BCPS’ Department of Innovative Learning. In January, Imbriale attended the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando, along with his wife, director of IT Enterprise Applications Jeanne Imbriale, and a phalanx of 10 other BCPS employees related to STAT. Both Imbriales and Information Technology director Lloyd Brown also attended the IMS Global consortium in Denver, Colorado in May, titled “The Future of EdTech Starts Here,” among numerous other jaunts. Did those employees disclose any payments or gifts?

Questions about similar “Other Charges” in various tech-oriented offices prone to travel have gone unanswered, despite repeated requests by school board members Miller and Causey, as well as county officials, since June.  


Budgeted, unspecified “Other Charges” include the office of the Chief Academic Officer (White’s former position) ($24,400); Digital Learning ($70,500); Executive Director Information Technology, ($98,200), Executive Director Innovative Learning ($107,0000, with just one professional FTE), and Innovative Learning Projects ($66,700).

Just how is all this taxpayer money being spent? Hopefully an outside audit will offer concrete answers. State Sen. Jim Brochin on Thursday requested that the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) and state Board of Education review BCPS contracts. Brochin, who recently announced his campaign for Baltimore County Executive, wrote in a letter: “I am asking for State oversight as the Baltimore County Board of Education failed to adequately scrutinize the relationships between the vendor-driven organizations and BCPS administrators in terms of participation on boards, panels and conferences as speakers and experts.”

— Joanne C. Simpson is a university lecturer, BCPS stakeholder, freelance journalist, and former staff writer for The Miami Herald and Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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2 Comments on "Op-Ed: More than $60 million in BCPS contracts linked to controversial private clients"

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Joanne C. Simpson
In other ERDI-related contract info: No-bid BCPS contracts bear closer scrutiny—there are numerous other, often more reasonable quality digital options out there for many of those offerings. There also remains questions about some of the bid-out or cooperative bid contracts. One of these, Promethean, holds a substantial piggy-back contract, at $2.75 million for five years, brought in under Dallas Dance and Ryan Imbriale in 2015. (On top of the $62 million). Promethean has been an active ERDI client. Contract info here: http://bit.ly/2zKJj5l And another, Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL), was approved by the board for a staggering $7.5 million for in-development language digital curricula being used mostly for teaching Spanish in elementary schools. Numerous troubles have been reported regarding lesson questions being in high-school level Spanish (impossible for fourth graders to comprehend), and children just guessing and not acquiring skills. A tech-company based outside “evaluation” apparently geared to product development is costing taxpayers nearly $1 million more. So far, many of the eval questions to students appear to be conducive to positive results, such as: ‘What do you like about Middlebury?’ Currently, duoLingo offers a free school-based version of its popular online language programs. https://schools.duolingo.com Here, more info on MIL, for further perusal. Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL), the centerpiece of BCPS’ Passport Program, has been a primary element of Blueprint 2.0’s second-language acquisition goal. Earlier this year it expanded to 40 elementary schools, and there are plans to bring the computer-based language program to middle schools as well. MIL also exemplifies… Read more »
Joanne C. Simpson

Postscript: A BCPS ethics policy change due to be discussed tonight: Eliminating clauses that “previously permitted Board members and other school officials to accept “reasonable expenses for food, travel, lodging, and scheduled entertainment of the official at a meeting which is given in return for the participation of the official in a panel or speaking engagement at the meeting.”

The proposed revision would prohibit this class of gifts. The intent of the prohibition is to encourage school system employees to pursue educational opportunities without the acceptance of the “reasonable expenses.””

Other eliminations are to be discussed as well. Policy Review Committee meeting is being held around 4 p.m.. today, and can be watched online. Agenda and other info here: http://bit.ly/2yx4Cnw

For more info, see links to BCPS Policy 8462 on Gifts below. Some have termed this a cosmetic fix and called for a review of all ethics-related school policies.

Here is a link to the current gifts policy, which nonetheless already has restrictions regarding accepting gifts or related, especially if “impartiality” can be called into question as related to current employees and contracts:

https://www.bcps.org/board/committee_agendas/111317/8362-Current-Policy.pdf

Proposed revised policy analysis: https://www.bcps.org/board/committee_agendas/111317/8362-Policy-Analysis-PRC-Draft-11-13-17.pdf

And draft here: https://www.bcps.org/board/committee_agendas/111317/8362-Policy-PRC-Draft-11-13-17.pdf

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