Wednesday, August 15, 2018

What Would You Call It?

Districts generally require employees who make final decisions on the use of taxpayer dollars to businesses to have on file disclosures about any other sources of income or connections to businesses that work with that district. 

But there is evidence that the line between some school districts' senior employees is getting blurry and it's downright murky in other ways. 

To wit, the story of Dallas Dance, former superintendent of Baltimore County Schools who was sentenced to six months in jail for perjury for not being honest about all his income sources.
From the Baltimore Sun:

Dance moved so quickly through the ranks that when he landed in Baltimore County, he didn’t have enough years of teaching to qualify for the superintendent job under Maryland law. The school board sought a waiver from the state school superintendent to hire him.

In his five years as superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, he led an overhaul of the curriculum, launched an effort to give a laptop computer to each student in the district and started teaching Spanish to elementary students.

By 2017, he had closed the gap in graduation rates between black and white students, a rare achievement in education. Dance also became known for his immaculate appearance — he favored the three-piece suit — his warm demeanor and his rapid-fire speech.

Dance traveled to technology conferences and participated in education leadership groups. In 2016, he spent more than a third of the school calendar out of the district, public records show. He visited 19 cities in 13 states at a cost to taxpayers of tens of thousands of dollars.
A commonality that nearly all school districts have is this:
Along with the superintendent, community superintendents, central office staff, principals, and legal counsel, even school board members must file annually to report income and relationships with any company doing business with the school system. The reason is to disclose potential conflicts of interest and relationships with school system vendors. The mandated legal forms are signed by employees under penalty of perjury.
But Dance had lied to school officials about his relationship with SUPES Academy, the company that paid him $90,000.

Supes Academy was a company created to train school administrators (think Broad Academy for principals with a billionaire behind it). From SUPES Linked page (the company has gone under):
SUPES is a comprehensive leadership development program established to prepare individuals who will be the next generation of school system leaders for the academic, political, legal, and logistical complexities of the world they seek to enter and lead.
Interestingly yet another senior school official, this time in Chicago, was also sent to prison for nearly five years for steering contracts to Supes Academy. Co-defendants, SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates owners Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, also pleaded guilty to related charges in the Chicago case.

One turn of events:
One week after Baltimore County schools’ former Superintendent S. Dallas Dance was sentenced to serve a six-month jail term for perjury charges stemming from withholding nearly $150,000 in income from three financial disclosure statements, the school system’s ethics department purged nearly 2,400 financial documents for over 350 past and current employees of the school system.
The mass purge occurred on April 27, 2018 and included records that were filed between 1997 and 2013 for all system employees who were required to file annually, including members of the central office staff, principals, school board members, legal counsel and all employees with financial decision-making power. Dance was sentenced for the perjury charges seven days earlier, on April 20.
But while the district’s own ethics policy states the financial records must be retained for at least four years from the time they are filed with the school system, up until April 27, the district kept records which had been filed as long as 21 years ago.
The purge appears to be the first of its kind for the system, records show. And although the documents destroyed on April 27th were discarded legally, records also show that Baltimore County schools had retained the system’s financial statements up and until a week after Dance’s legal battle ended with his sentencing, and during a heated debate on the conduct of a full system audit which questioned employee and vendor ties.

I'll have to ask SPS how long they have to keep their financial disclosure records. 

What brings this thread to a link with Puget Sound area districts, including SPS? ERDI.
ERDI stands for Education Research and Development Institute, a company that arranges meetings between superintendents and tech companies. The Chicago company brokers meetings between its paid roster of superintendents and education technology firms that pay to meet privately with the school leaders. Some of the companies had won no-bid contracts with the county school system during Dance’s tenure. Dallas Dance did work for them while he was the superintendent in Baltimore (but did not properly disclose this to his board or the public).
Or, as noted public education blogger, Mercedes Schneider, puts it:
It’s a pay-to-play in which the ed businesses dish out thousands of dollars in order to pitch their products to school admin that the ed businesses get to choose from among a pool of ERDI-paid school admin “product reviewers” who are paid stipends by ERDI to attend ERDI events, with travel expenses also paid by ERDI.
ERDI offered several levels of “involvement” to mostly educational software and hardware vendors that wanted to participate. The “levels” determined how much time they would get to spend with school officials. With the money from the vendors, ERDI paid not only for the conference expenses, but paid each school official who participated.

In effect, ERDI was passing money from vendors to the superintendents who were supposedly engaged in an arms-length transaction about what to buy for their school districts.
From the New York Times:
Among other services provided by ERDI, it charges a company $13,000 to facilitate one three-hour meeting between corporate representatives and five superintendents or other school officials to discuss products, according to an ERDI membership rate card. ERDI has in the past paid superintendents $2,000 per conference and covered their travel to conferences held at hotels like the Four Seasons in Baltimore.
Which brings this thread to the local connection via a very good article from KNKX's Ashley Gross, Why Are Top School Officials From Washington Getting Paid To Meet With Tech Companies?(Bold mine)
District superintendents play an important role in deciding what software to buy, and because of that, education technology companies look for ways to get their attention.
What’s clear is that education technology has become a big business. There are juggernauts like Apple and Microsoft, of course. Then there are also a lot of startups trying to get their products into schools, and they’re attracting venture capital.

Investors have poured more than $19 billion into education-technology startups in the past five years, according to CB Insights, a data company that tracks investments. All of those education-technology companies want to find a way into school districts.
Parents in the Kent School District have raised concerns about a company that pays honoraria to superintendents, including the one from Kent, to meet with technology companies and give feedback on their products.
At a Feb. 14, 2018, school board meeting, Kent Superintendent Calvin Watts said he had just returned from a gathering with technology companies.
“(I) want to first share that I most recently had the opportunity to serve as a consulting superintendent in Education Research and Development Institute, otherwise known as ERDI,” Watts said.
(I'll just interject here that things are heating up in Kent SD, including a possible teachers strike and parents who have little confidence in their board or Superintendent.)
Companies pay ERDI to come to the institutes to show their products to school superintendents and get feedback. ERDI usually covers travel costs for the school officials and pays them an honorarium of about $2,000.

Superintendent Watts of Kent SD did get that honorarium but it doesn't appear to be the first time. 

In an interview, Watts said he’s participated in five or six ERDI events since 2015, when he took the job in Kent. He said he doesn’t agree that there’s any conflict of interest and that his participation helps companies refine their products so schools benefit from better technology.
Who else has participated?
But in looking at ERDI, it turns out Watts isn’t the only one from the Puget Sound region who’s participated. The superintendents of Tacoma and Highline school districts and the chief information officer of Seattle Public Schools have gone as well.

Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno said she appreciates the chance to talk with other superintendents.
“This is a time where I can sit with other people from 30,000-kid districts and talk about what their issues are, what they’re doing about solving them,” she said. “Sometimes we talk about, `Hey, did you see that social media thing? What did you think? How could you use it?’"
Santorno said she’s donated the honoraria she gets from ERDI, with the bulk going to the Foundation for Tacoma Students. The foundation confirmed that.
Santorno, Highline Superintendent Susan Enfield and Seattle Public Schools Chief Information Officer John Krull all said they get the proper approvals and that they value participating in ERDI because of the opportunity for professional development. They also said it gives them a chance to find out what new tools are available that could be beneficial to their students.
Regarding questions about potential conflicts of interest, Enfield said she’s been deliberate about removing herself from purchase decisions.
“I share a promising service or product with the appropriate person on our team and let them determine if it meets our needs — I do not make that call,” Enfield said in an email.
Krull said Seattle Public Schools has “standard purchasing procedures that involve various people and approvals. I am transparent about conferences I attend and do not let that attendance influence purchasing decisions.
I'll have to ask if Mr. Krull received an honoraria and, if so, how much and what did he do with it. 

The point?
Kids run laps to raise money for their school’s PTA.
Teachers collect donations online for classroom supplies.
Against that backdrop, it’s fair to ask how are these big-ticket technology decisions getting made.
And is anyone making money on the side while making these decisions.
Transparency and accountability have to be the hallmarks for taxpayer dollars invested in public schools.


Anonymous said...

You may want to look into why tech billionaires send their children to Waldorf schools, where there's no tech or gadgets allowed until 8th grade and at that point, very limited technology.



And they want to sell it to your kids...hmmmm

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