The Baltimore County school system plans to hire an outside accountant to audit its purchasing practices amid questions about the awarding of millions of dollars in technology contracts the past few years.
But some school board members and parents want the state to intervene and hire the auditor rather than leaving the matter in the hands of county school officials.
A state senator and others called for an audit last month after The Baltimore Sun reported that school system administrators for several years worked as paid consultants for a company that represents education technology firms.
Former Superintendent Dallas Dance and Verletta White, now the interim superintendent, were being paid by the Chicago-based Education Research & Development Institute when the school system awarded no-bid contracts to several client companies of ERDI, The Sun’s investigation found.
The county school system on Friday issued a request for bids from accounting firms to audit the district’s procurement process for the fiscal year that ended June 30. The proposed audit, which would begin Jan. 10 and be completed by Feb. 15, would include an examination of a sampling of technology purchases, including some made without seeking competitive bids and some that did solicit proposals.
But four of 12 members of the county school board sent a letter to White Tuesday suggesting the state board and State Superintendent Karen Salmon should be involved in “developing and implementing an independent, comprehensive forensic audit.”
“Such an audit would ensure that all questions are answered, any mistakes rectified, and allow our system to move forward with a clean slate and a fresh start,” they wrote.
The letter was signed by board members Ann Miller, Kathleen Causey, Julie Henn and Roger Hayden.
Miller, Causey and several Baltimore County School System parents made the request to the state school board at its meeting Tuesday morning.
“The review of BCPS procurement practices that our interim superintendent has initiated only covers a fraction of what is needed, and only reviews six months of the time under our previous superintendent,” Miller told the state board. She said the county needs an independent audit, not one overseen by the school system.
Brenda Peiffer, mother of two children who attend county schools, said she is concerned the technology initiative that has provided a laptop to each elementary and middle school student has not yet proved to be effective.
“It is crucial we get to the bottom of the controversy that has recently come to light so we can know with certainty what is behind this push for technology use in BCPS,” Peiffer said.
The state board responded Tuesday afternoon, saying that such a “performance audit” of the county school system could be done only at the request of the county school board or the county government, which would also have to agree to pay for it.
Asked if County Executive Kevin Kamenetz would initiate an audit, spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said, “The County Executive has complete confidence in Superintendent White to manage the school system, and the answer to your question is no.”
White became interim superintendent July 1 after Dance resigned with three years remaining on his $287,000-a year contract, saying the job was wearing on him. When he resigned, The Sun later reported, he was under investigation by the Maryland State Prosecutor’s office for his relationship with SUPES Academy, a company that had a contract with the school system. The investigation is ongoing, according to sources.
After The Sun’s reporting on their work for ERDI, White announced recently that she will no longer accept pay from consulting work and will abide by new restrictions on her out-of-state travel. As interim superintendent, White is being paid $265,000 this school year.
The state school board said in its written response that it will be seeking additional information about the local audit, including its length, “specificity and responsiveness to the public concerns.”
White said in a written statement that she is “pleased the state board recognizes that the Baltimore County Public Schools administration has already pursued an independent audit…. We look forward to sharing any requested information including the scope of work and expected timeline.”
The school district’s chief of staff, Mychael Dickerson, said White initiated the board’s approval of an audit in late September “to reinforce her belief and findings of previous audits that show our practices are sound.”
The split among school board members over the audit comes at a time when the district is seeking bids for a multi-million contract to provide students with new laptops. The models currently being used are no longer made, and the school system plans to replace those that are four years old. The contract must be approved by a divided county school board, which will also have to decide whether to launch a national search for a new superintendent ot to keep White, who has said she would like the job.
Leslie Weber, a parent of a child who attends school in Baltimore County, said the last five years under Dance had been focused more on “implementing massive changes and enhancing our image on the national stage than addressing our schools’s many pressing needs.”
The technology initiative is viewed by many teachers and parents as positive, but some say the implementation has been flawed. Students have broken through firewalls, devices have broken down and some parents believe the cost has taken away money from more important needs.