Baltimore County schools need a new leader
Monday, 30 December 2013 11:37

by Steve Matrazzo

There were reasons to wonder about S. Dallas Dance from the start. The youthful superintendent came to the Baltimore County public school system with little more than a decade as a professional educator and barely more than half as much time at the local school level — and only two years in the classroom.
    (In fact, to hire Dance, Baltimore County had to seek a waiver of the state requirement that superintendents have at least three years of classroom teaching experience.)
    It wasn’t just the inexperience; it was the naked careerism evident in his résumé. After earning a degree in English and landing a teaching job at Highland Springs High School near Richmond, he immediately began pursuing his master’s degree, as is usual for teaching professionals.
    Tellingly, his area of specialization in his master’s program was “administration and supervision,” and he followed that up with a doctorate in 2007 — focusing on “educational leadership” — by which time he had already left the classroom behind and become assistant principal at Highland Springs and then principal at nearby Brookland Middle School.
    Clearly, this was a man on his way up the ladder.    
    One former boss, Chesterfield County (Va.) superintendent Marcus Newsome, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “We knew he was a superstar .... It was only a matter of time before he was moving on.”
    After three years of main-office work in Virginia, he made his way to Houston for a regional superintendency, staying for a whole two years before being hired here.
    There was cause to wonder if he saw Baltimore County as yet another stepping stone. In fact, when he was hired, such concerns were evident enough that he felt compelled to promise he would stay for at least the full four-year term of his contract -— longer than the two-year average of his previous jobs.
    Then questions of transparency emerged. Locally, the abrupt decision to close Eastwood Elementary — without so much as a whisper to the public — was coupled with repeated refusals by the school system to allow an Eagle reporter to view the progress of interior work on the new Dundalk High-Sollers Point Tech campus and report on it for our readers.
    Worse yet, our inquiries were met with claims about “safety and liability concerns” that can only be described as outright lies, since politicians and other “preferred persons”  were being given guided tours.
    The press — and therefore, the public, whose tax dollars were paying for the project to the tune of $105 million — were shut out.
    Recently, even more disturbing issues have arisen.
   

In early December, Catalyst Chicago, which covers Chicago public schools, reported that Dance was among several high-level administrators across the country engaging in “side jobs” with SUPES Academy, a private company that trains school administrators, at the same time that SUPES was being paid to conduct training in the school systems those administrators led.
    There’s a significant amount of money involved. From the Catalyst report:
    “Because [SUPES] is a private company and not subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, [the] compensation is not public. Sources say that coaches are paid a flat fee of several thousand dollars for each principal they are assigned to coach, plus a lump sum for each day of master teaching .... coaches [work] with an average of 10 principals each .... in [2012], the Baltimore County Public Schools board approved an $895,000 contract to have SUPES [train] principals over three years .... [O]fficials say the contract was not bid out ....”
    Dance pointed out that his contract does allow outside work and that he began the SUPES job months after the county school system contracted with the company.
    And when he finally agreed in mid-December to end his association with SUPES, he cited the “distraction” caused by the controversy as the reason.
    That is, he still doesn’t think there was anything wrong with his actions — just the “distraction.”
    In fact, there was plenty wrong. There’s the inherent conflict of interest involved in Dance’s being paid by SUPES while the company has a contract with the county schools. We are told he wasn’t working for SUPES when the contract was signed, but can we, looking at it from the outside, be sure that his SUPES job wasn’t a reward for getting the contract done? More to the point, can we be sure that Dance’s oversight of SUPES training in Baltimore County would not be influenced by his other connection to the company?
    Such questions are precisely why Baltimore County’s ethics policy says school officials may not “maintain secondary employment with a business entity that is negotiating with or has entered into a contract with the board or school system.”
    Moreover, there are questions as to why Dance — who earns $255,000 per year ($100,000 more than the county executive) — should be earning extra cash training administrators elsewhere while the county is paying SUPES for the same training, and why private companies — already building an unseemly role in public education — should be needed for such training at all.
    One might also ask questions about actual “distraction” — whether Dance’s efforts should be focused at home, where a wide range of issues — not the least of which is friction with both teachers and the public over Common Core standards — demand attention.
    It’s never possible to see into a man’s mind and know where his true priorities lie. However, the evidence that Dance’s priorities lie beyond the Baltimore County school system, its schools and its students is sufficient to prompt doubt.
    And the citizens of Baltimore County should demand that their superintendent’s priorities be crystal clear, and that they be focused on educating the children of Baltimore County — not advancing his own career or possibly lining his own pockets.
    Not when there is so much to be done, and so much at stake.
    All things considered, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Baltimore County students would be better served by a different superintendent, and that all concerned would have more confidence in another leader.
    Having taken a leap of faith in hiring Dance, county school board members may resist the implications about their own judgment that would come with terminating his contract, but that shouldn’t stop them from doing the right thing. They, too, have a responsibility to the citizens of Baltimore County, and to the children placed in their charge.
    It is time for Dallas Dance to go.