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Baltimore County School Officials in Hot Water Over Ed-Tech Contracts

Maryland state lawmakers and local school board members are calling for reviews of the Baltimore County school district's technology purchases following a New York Times report questioning the relationships between officials from the 113,000-student school system and technology vendors receiving large contracts.

Democratic State Sen. James Brochin has "asked the Maryland Department of Education and state school board to investigate all contracts related to a technology initiative, launched four years ago, that is expected to cost the [Baltimore County] school district more than $200 million," the Baltimore Sun reported last week.

Four BCPS board members have also requested an "emergency administrative session" to discuss "possible ethics violations," according to the Towson Flyer.

At issue is the Baltimore County district's ambitious 1-to-1 technology program. In 2014, former superintendent Dallas Dance launched an effort to provide students with their own HP tablet-laptop hybrid devices, awarding a $205 million contract for the devices.

In the district's review process, that HP device was ranked third out of four considered, the Times reported. Not long after the contract was awarded, Dance received an invitation from HP to give a keynote address at a major conference, and the superintendent appeared in a promotional video for the company, according to the report. The company that was awarded the HP device contract (Daly, a Maryland-based re-seller) gave $30,000 to the district's education foundation. And between 2014 and 2017, Dance took at least 65 out-of-state trips "related to the district's tech initiatives or involving industry-funded groups," and "at least $13,000 of [his] airline tickets, hotel bills, meals and other fees were paid for by organizations sponsored by tech companies," according to a Times analysis.

The controversy in Baltimore County is hardly the first time a major district has found itself in trouble over ed-tech procurement. One case in point: the Los Angeles Unified school district's massive iPad initiative, launched in 2013, which ultimately led to the resignations of Superintendent John Deasy and two of his top cabinet officials following questions over their relationships with Apple and Pearson. An FBI investigation into the arrangement was dropped in February, but not before the district's new leadership dramatically scaled back the initiative.

Beyond the direct connections between HP, Daly, and BCPS officials, the Times report also highlights tech companies' practice of paying private business and advocacy organizations to set up events that allow vendors to reach superintedents and other district leaders. It particularly highlights a group called ERDI, short for the Education Research and Development Institute.

Dance, who resigned without explanation earlier this year, attended at least five such events, the Times reported. Baltimore County schools' interim superintendent Verletta White, who is continuing the district's technology initiatives, also participated in some ERDI events.

Both Dance and White initially failed to report payments they received from the group, according to the Baltimore Sun.

The Sun quotes state Sen. Brochin's letter calling for an audit of BCPS as expressing concern about "digital education companies having unrestricted access to key decision makers in Baltimore County Public Schools and in turn, the awarding of contracts to those companies."

The Sun also quotes Maryland Gov. Larry Hogen as saying "if these things are really happening, it's outrageous and we need to get to the bottom of it."

The state school board is expected to decide whether to audit the district  at its next meeting, on December 5.


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