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Exclusive: Report Finds Multiple Problems Within BCPS

Baltimore County School Superintendent Darryl Williams. Credit: John Lee

A scathing examination of the Baltimore County Public Schools finds a top-heavy school system with low morale, poor communication, and a dysfunctional school board. The report recommends nearly 200 changes the school system should make.

WYPR obtained a copy of a consultant’s 759-page study that is to be presented to the school board next week.

The report said the structure of the school system’s central office is ineffective and inefficient. It proposes a reorganization and streamlining that would save nearly $40 million over five years.

School Board member Lily Rowe said that’s money that could be used elsewhere.

“$40 million is what it costs to build an entire elementary school,” Rowe said.

Speaking for herself and not for the board, Rowe said the report has worthy suggestions that need to be considered.

The study describes a school board that fosters an atmosphere of discord and unprofessionalism, which results in people not trusting in its leadership.

Among other things, the report recommends the school board adopt a civility policy and attend team-building workshops.

Neither board chair Makeda Scott nor vice chair Julie Henn responded to requests for comment.

The report makes recommendations on how the school system can improve low employee morale and slow down a high turnover rate. They include giving a close read to surveys filled out by staff about morale and the climate in the school system. It also finds clear communication is lacking throughout the central office and schools.

Democratic Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, who has served on the council for 11 years, said in the last several years she began hearing grumbling and complaints from staff, teachers and the unions.

Bevins asked, “Why over the last few years, what’s changed, what do they need to be doing differently?”

Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk is hearing the complaints too and said he finds the study disappointing but not surprising.

“Ultimately in the final analysis, this is a function of leadership,” Quirk said. “We need the superintendent to own this. We need the superintendent to say, ‘the buck stops with me and these changes are going to happen.’ I hope that we see that.”

Republican Councilman David Marks said, “Overall, I think it’s something that we need to sink our teeth into.”

What the council can do about the running of the school system is limited. About half of the county’s budget, around $2 billion, goes to the public schools. And while the council passes the budget, Councilwoman Bevins said it has no say as to how the school system spends the money. So, for instance, the council can’t direct the administration to make cuts to the central office.

“We can cut them and then they can choose to cut somewhere else,” Bevins said. “Quite frankly, I wasn’t willing to take that risk.”

The report says the study was handicapped by COVID-19 and last November’s ransomware attack. And speaking of that, it says the school system is not adequately staffed to deal with cybersecurity attacks.

The report isn’t all negative. It gives the school system 54 kudos. They include the effort put in to recover from the ransomware attack, food distribution during the COVID pandemic, a school bus safety initiative, and a well-run athletic program.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski said, “We want to keep doing those things we’re doing right but also looking for those opportunities for improvement and embarking on those as well.”

Olszewski said the report is comprehensive.

“It has shown us, as I think all good leaders would want, a roadmap to be as efficient as possible with our resources, but also ways to ensure that we are delivering on best practices.”

The county is paying the consultant, Public Works LLC, $1.2 million for efficiency reports on the school system and the county government. The government report has not been released.

In a statement to WYPR, School Superintendent Darryl Williams said the recommendations from the report will be reviewed and a timeline will be developed for implementation, considering the unique needs of the system during the ongoing pandemic.

“Our goal is to ensure that we do not disrupt services and supports to schools and offices during this process,” Williams wrote. “We remain steadfast in our focus on our schools and students.”

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2