Baltimore Co. School Board Questions Administrators Over Spending

… System rewrote curriculum and purchased textbooks …

By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

9:05 AM EST, November 23, 2011

Saying that money had been wasted and school system policies had not been followed in the purchases of books and writing of curriculum, Baltimore County school board members asked administrators Tuesday night for reassurances that similar mistakes would not be made in the future.

The school board’s questions came after reports in The Baltimore Sun this month that detailed the school system’s spending of millions of dollars to rewrite language arts curriculum that has been shelved and to purchase a 27-year-old grammar textbook that sat in a warehouse for nearly a year before being distributed recently.

School leaders discussed the issue for nearly two hours at the school board meeting, asking administrators pointed questions about who made decisions and why policies that governed curriculum and instruction offices had not been followed.

Board members expressed concern that book purchases were made without the signature of a high-level administrator. Board President Lawrence Schmidt said he could find no evidence that any curriculum change proposals had come before the board since 2008.

“You have indicated there were failures of leadership. What assurances does this board have that this will not happen again?” Schmidt asked administrators.

The administrators detailed a series of mistakes from 2009 to 2010.

Sonja M. Karwacki, executive director of liberal arts, said that midlevel managers in the curriculum office had gone on vacation and left teachers who were hired over the summer to write curriculum without adequate leadership. She said that instead of doing a small, specific rewrite of the language arts curriculum for grades six through 12, the teachers expanded the work and did an entire rewrite of the curriculum.

That rewrite, administrators said, will not be used because Maryland is adopting national standards along with more than 40 other states. Karwacki acknowledged that the county had been warned not to rewrite curriculum because of the coming standards.

Karwacki said Barbara Dezmon, the assistant superintendent for equity and assurances, had been assigned by Superintendent Joe A. Hairston to oversee the curriculum offices.

Dezmon, who was in the audience, rose and asked to speak to the board. Dezmon said that she believed what they were being told was incorrect. But Schmidt pointed out that she no longer works for the school system and declined to allow her to speak.

Schmidt asked Hairston why he had allowed Dezmon, whose job description did not include curriculum, to manage the offices. Hairston said Dezmon was the most qualified administrator he had at the time in language arts.

“That is a fair answer,” Schmidt said.

Board members also asked Karwacki why she signed documents for Dezmon authorizing the purchase of books. She said she was told only to make sure that enough money was available and that a lower-level administrator had directed the purchase.

During the board’s questioning, Roger Plunkett, the current chief of curriculum and instruction, said every book purchase will have to be authorized by him. He was not with the system in the spring of 2010 when the other purchases were made.

School administrators and Hairston defended the decision to purchase the 27-year-old grammar book with outdated references for $2.2 million and to write a linguistics curriculum to focus on grammar and writing. Hairston said grammar had been taught in a systematic way before he arrived in the system but that it had been lost from the curriculum.

“This is a restoration of curriculum that existed before,” he said.

But board member Michael J. Collins said that since grammar would be taught during language arts lessons, the system might not have needed to purchase a book for every child. “Maybe we don’t need entire sets of these books,” he said.

Plunkett said the grammar books have been delivered to schools and that all the books will be used except “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf. The school system paid $120,111 for 8,000 copies of the novel.

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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