Doubt raised about report

Integrity of review of county schools called into question

Consultant resigns

Employee says he was encouraged to plagiarize document

Howard County

May 23, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

A consultant hired to work on an independent review of the Howard County school system's practices and operations resigned last month because he said he had doubts about the integrity of the effort.

The consultant, John Baldwin, said the lead consultant of the six-month study told him to "plagiarize from another report done for the Galveston, Texas, school district rather than try to write an honest assessment of the work going on in Howard County schools." Baldwin did not identify the consultant.

"I was also told that the only real audience for the report was the superintendent. This did not strike me as what the system most needs," Baldwin added in an e-mail sent to a parent last week.

The parent, Barry Tevelow, posted Baldwin's e-mail on an education-related Internet list-serve.

Baldwin confirmed yesterday that he had written the e-mail, but he declined to discuss the performance review.

He said that Howard County's is a "remarkably good school system" despite problems such as the academic achievement gap between blacks and other students, and limited educational opportunities for students who are not college-bound. He said the system has the resources to address those concerns.

Baldwin's e-mail to Tevelow indicated that the review - which is scheduled for release next month - "will most likely be a lot of boilerplate from [another school system's review] with a few recommendations the superintendent wants."

Superintendent John R. O'Rourke denied that he has had any influence on the review.

"I don't know who Mr. Baldwin is," O'Rourke said in a telephone interview yesterday. "Frankly, I've been attending to other things. I'm not directing anything. In fact, I'm pretty much hands-off. This is an independent performance review."

O'Rourke said that Baldwin's allegations are more the concern of the company that hired him, not the school system's.

"This, in and of itself, doesn't do anything to diminish my confidence in [the review]," O'Rourke said.

School system spokeswoman Patti Caplan said that there has been a clear separation between the consultants and school system officials and employees.

"We have not been involved in the putting together of the report at all, any of the writing or anything. It's all theirs," she said. "They came in and told us what they needed and we provided it."

Comprehensive review

Baldwin was hired to help with the performance review by WCL Enterprises, a consulting group chosen in January to evaluate all aspects of the county school system, from salaries and hiring practices to building operations to students' academic performance.

The school board allocated $250,000 for the review, after several months of complaints by residents about inequities among schools, redistricting policies and other concerns.

Houston-based WCL performed a similar review of the Galveston Independent School District last year. Galveston Superintendent Henry Boening said in a telephone interview yesterday that he was impressed with the quality of the WCL assessment of his district.

Bill Lenhart, who heads WCL Enterprises, defended his integrity in a memo sent on Monday to Martha Johnson, director of the review project for Howard County schools. "Please be assured that I would not jeopardize [my] reputation by engaging in, or asking others to engage in, any unprofessional or unscrupulous behavior," he wrote.

Lenhart noted in a telephone interview yesterday that Baldwin was a contracted consultant, not a WCL employee.

Concern on the council

Some County Council members expressed concern yesterday about Baldwin's e-mail. The council and County Executive James N. Robey were strong proponents of an independent review of the school system.

"It definitely concerns me," said Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican. "It certainly is worth asking some questions. If we're not getting a full review, then that's certainly not going to be helpful."

Kittleman said he wanted to reserve judgment on the matter until he and other council members talked to school officials and learned more about Baldwin.

Some members of the list-serve and at least one council member have speculated that Baldwin might be a disgruntled employee. Others wondered why he was exchanging e-mail with Tevelow, an outspoken critic of the school system, especially considering the company's policy of confidentiality.

Baldwin said he was upset about the way the review was being conducted. A Baltimore resident with an extensive background in education, Baldwin said he spent 100 to 150 hours in Howard County, interviewing teachers, parents and other residents about their opinions of the school system.

Baldwin said he has a master's degree in education administration from Harvard University and a master's degree in American studies from the University of London.

Baldwin said he has never spoken with Tevelow, but that he has responded twice to messages from Tevelow. Baldwin gave his e-mail address to participants of a focus group meeting that Tevelow attended.

County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a Democrat from North Laurel, agreed with Kittleman about the need for caution.

"They're serious allegations," he said, "but at the moment, it's not the basis to take any action. We want to hear what the superintendent and Mr. Lenhart have to say about this."

"If it is true, we have to do something about it," Kittleman said. "If it's not accurate, it's just as important that we get out to the public what the truth is. Who cares what the review says if no one has any confidence in it?"

WCL is scheduled to release the results of its audit to the school board June 26.

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