Baltimore County School Board Members Battle Over Computers and Superintendent
The Baltimore County School Board’s meeting Tuesday night broke out in open warfare, as members grappled with two controversial issues. The board green lighted a $140 million computer contract, and decided to move ahead on a nationwide search for a new school superintendent.
The superintendent search was on the agenda. But board member Stephen Verch proposed hiring interim school superintendent Verletta White on the spot.
“We have a superintendent on the job with this record of devotion to our system,” Verch said.
White has been in the county school system for more than two decades, working her way up from teacher to interim superintendent. But board member Kathleen Causey called Verch unprofessional for proposing hiring White instead of sticking to what was on the agenda. She gave the board a list of things it should not do.
“Not rush things,” Causey said. “Not cut out the communities. Not cut out the process. Have no advisors. That’s just utterly ridiculous.”
White has a lot of support among teachers and principals. But she also has been tarnished by a couple of ethics violations for failing to report money she earned as a consultant. White said that was an honest mistake and unlike previous superintendent Dallas Dance, she has not been charged with a crime. White has promised to never accept outside work.
Not good enough for board member Ann Miller.
“We should exclude from consideration anyone with ethical violations,” Miller said.
Unless it gets an extension from the state, Baltimore County must have a new superintendent in place by July first. Miller said board members who support White have purposely put off the search for months, basically running out the clock.
“The majority of this board is trying to shoehorn us in to one candidate with no other options,” Miller said. “Essentially a no-bid contract for our next superintendent.”
But board vice chairman Nick Stewart said they’ve received weeks of feedback and held a town hall about who should be the next superintendent, and there has been a lot of support for White.
“We have the benefit of having worked with Ms. White and knowing how she interacts with this board, which, I can just say it, we’re not the easiest of boards to work with,” Stewart said.
Board member David Uhlfelder said they’ve been working with White for months now and it’s time to get on with it.
“I don’t see why we have to listen to more public comments when we already know what it takes,” Uhlfelder said.
In the end, the board reached a compromise of sorts. It agreed to start the nationwide search for a new superintendent. But it also agreed to take up the question of hiring White permanently at its next meeting in two weeks.
Tom DeHart, the executive director of CASE, the Council of Administrative and Supervisory Employees, said the board waited too long to start the search. CASE represents principals and supervisors and supports hiring White permanently. The election of a new school board, that will be the new school superintendent’s boss, is just seven months away. DeHart said good candidates will be wary of that because old boards hire, new boards fire.
“So if I am a real top notch superintendent, I can see the politics in that and sit this one out,” DeHart said.
In other action, the board approved the $140 million computer contract with Daly Computers for a new generation of devices for teachers and students, but not before one board member leveled a charge of hypocrisy against opponents of the contract.
It was touched off when board member Causey proposed using a less expensive device--maybe not top of the line--that would save the county $9 million.
Causey said, “The board should decide that price is in fact very important, and if we’re going from an A+ to an A-, I think it’s worth it.”
Board member Verch said Causey and other opponents of the contract were being hypocrites in part because they warned the cost of computers take away from more pressing needs, then turned around and offered their own idea for devices. That sparked a shouting match between Verch and Causey, with Causey saying Verch had put words in her mouth.
Board member Julie Henn pushed for a delay to give the board more time to study the nuts and bolts of the contract, and to look for less expensive alternatives
“There are ways to bring this technology to our classrooms,” Henn said. “We have to be creative. And we have to work together. And if there is an opportunity for savings we cannot pass up that opportunity. There are too many unmet needs.”
But in making the case for the contract, the board heard from the front lines, like Mays Chapel Elementary School second grader Alex Cox.
“If there were no devices, I would not be able to do Dreambox,” Alex told the board. “I like Dreambox because it’s really fun and it let’s me show how good I am at math.”
Teachers from Rodgers Forge Elementary School showed up in force, wearing shirts with the slogan #KeepMovingForwardBCPS. Katie Schmidt, an instructional coach at Rodgers Forge, said there would be a cost to going back to shared computers.
“Whether we’re going back to computer labs, then we would have to rewire and all of that in a computer lab setting again,” Schmidt said. ”Carts with shared devices.”
Josie Shaffer, who is a seniorat Pikesviile High and the student member of the board, is no fan of going back to the computer cart.
“And it will wheel around the classroom and plug them into the wall,” Shaffer said. “There are like 20 computers on it. It’s a madhouse to get that computer.”
Board member Miller peppered the staff with questions about the cost of the new generation of computers. Miller proposed buying the current computers in the classroom for a fraction of the cost. Then when a new school board takes over after the November elections, it can decide whether to spend the $140 million. Plus, Miller said they should wait until after a planned audit is conducted of school system purchases.
“And really until that special review audit is conducted, there’s going to be a cloud over this,” Miller said.
But interim school superintendent White said the process to buy the new computers has been open and transparent.
White said, “In terms of being good fiscal stewards, we do not, as a school system, just run out and say, ‘you know what, just give us the most expensive device that you have.’ That is just not how we operate.”
White said buying the current devices rather than the new generation would be a waste of money, because they are obsolete and come with no warranties.
With the board’s approval of the contract last night, new computers are expected to be delivered to the county next month.