Dance's conflict [Editorial]

Our view: County school board needs to tell the superintendent that his outside work and his failure to disclose it pose real ethical problems

December 16, 2013

Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance's decision to quit a consulting job with a company that does business with the county schools was the right one. His explanation for why he's quitting, though, is all wrong, and it underscores the importance of the school board's plan to have a private talking-to with him on Tuesday night. Here's what the board members need to tell him:

Whether he meant it this way or not, saying that he's quitting his $15,000 consulting job with the Illinois-based SUPES Academy because the issue had become "a distraction" conveys the message that the problem was not with anything he had done, but with those who would question it. The board needs to make clear to Mr. Dance that the issues involved are not trivial and that he did not exercise good judgment in how he handled the matter.

SUPES Academy provides training for school administrators who want to become principals or superintendents. Mr. Dance is one of its alumni, having received training from the company in 2011 when he was a top administrator in Houston. Upon the request of the Dance administration, the board approved a contract with SUPES on Dec. 4, 2012, to pay the company $875,000 over three years to train up to 25 prospective principals per year.

That comes out to about $11,667 per trainee, or $1,667 per day of training. The contract was not competitively bid; rather, the county district piggybacked on a contract the St. Louis school system had with SUPES. Such an arrangement is legal under the school system's procurement rules, but it is not necessarily wise. We have no way of knowing whether SUPES provides the best or the most cost effective instruction.

About eight months later, Mr. Dance agreed to become an instructor for SUPES, working one Saturday a month to train prospective principals in Chicago. In response to initial inquiries from The Sun's Liz Bowie, Mr. Dance said he believed the arrangement raised no ethical concerns because he took the position after the school board had approved the SUPES contract.

That's not quite how the school system's ethics policy sees it. Among the various provisions that might relate to this situation is: "Except as permitted by board policies when the interest is disclosed, or when the employment does not create a conflict of interest or appearance of a conflict, a school system official may not ... have a financial interest in or maintain secondary employment with a business entity that is negotiating with or has entered into a contract with the board or school system."

Mr. Dance's contract also stipulates that outside employment is permissible but only so long as it does not conflict with his day job and so long as he gets the prior approval of the school board. Mr. Dance, however, said he believed he was only required to report on outside work annually. Essentially, that means he thought of the situation as one merely requiring disclosure as opposed to permission. That's a big difference.

Mr. Dance has offered two caveats in an attempt to quell the criticism of this outside employment. First, he says that his time commitment in Chicago is minimal and takes place outside the normal work day and that he is being exposed to different ideas about how to handle the issues common to large, urban school systems. No doubt there's some truth to that. Mr. Dance also says that he is donating his salary from SUPES, minus travel expenses, to a Baltimore County scholarship fund.

That's admirable, but it doesn't change the fact that Mr. Dance's employment gives him unusually close contact with a particular school district vendor. How can we expect him to objectively evaluate the work SUPES is doing for Baltimore County? And none of it excuses his assumption that he could simply disclose the relationship months after the fact.

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