TOWSON — The decision by the state’s top education official to block, at least for now, Verletta White’s hiring to be the permanent superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools is having reverberations in several political campaigns.
More than a half-dozen elected officials and community activists led by Baltimore County Council Chairman Julian E. Jones Jr. expressed their outrage over the rare, if not unprecedented, decision by Maryland State Schools Superintendent Karen B. Salmon at a news conference just outside White’s office.
“I think it is egregious and outrageous for the state to step in and negate everything that has happened here today in Baltimore County in terms of appointing Ms. Verletta White as superintendent of schools,” said Jones, who called Salmon’s decision “arbitrary and capricious” and hinted that a legal challenge was being considered.
Salmon, in a letter to the Baltimore County school board, temporarily blocked the hiring of White as the permanent superintendent, a position she has held as an interim since the departure and subsequent conviction of S. Dallas Dance on four counts of perjury for failing to disclose income on his financial disclosure forms.
Salmon, in an April 27 letter to the board, wrote that an internal report that found White violated county ethics laws “causes me to pause as I consider whether to approve this appointment.”
Furthermore, Salmon said, an audit of the school’s procurement process needs to be completed before she would make a final determination on White’s appointment. Salmon offered to accept White’s appointment to continue as an interim superintendent.
Jones and other officials said politics and Gov. Larry Hogan played a part in Salmon’s decision.
“It doesn’t help adding politics to this discussion,” said Del. Patrick G. Young, D-Baltimore County.
The issue comes at a time when the county is prepared to hold school board elections as well as pick a new county executive, and it is likely to play a role in the 2018 governor’s race.
Mileah Kromer, a political science professor at Goucher College, said the debate over White could catch the attention of county voters.
“The people who have a deep understanding of school board issues are likely to be engaged and motivated to come out to the polls,” said Kromer.
When asked if politics played a role in the decision, Jones, the council chair, said: “Too much.”
“I try not to go here because, quite frankly, I don’t want to tug on Superman’s cape, but when you hear the governor talk, his comments seem to me that he is very loose with the facts or he don’t know the facts,” said Jones. “But he says the words ‘ethics, ethics, ethics’ as if there’s something here. There’s a big difference between (White) and Dallas Dance.”
Jones said the governor was involved in Salmon’s decision, at least indirectly.
“I think when he says things that are sort of loose I think people under him may respond,” said Jones. “I would never want to accuse the governor of anything. I think he’s an honorable person. I just think when I hear certain comments … people may act accordingly.”
Similarly, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat who is seeking his party’s nomination to challenge Hogan, called Salmon’s decision political and driven by the governor.
“Larry Hogan has a troubling pattern of playing politics at the expense of children’s education,” said Kamenetz. “He’s created turmoil over the school calendar and the school construction process. Now he directs his schools chief to take the unprecedented step to overturn the judgment of the local school board who knows Superintendent White best. He’s shameless!”
Amelia Chassé, said Hogan was not aware of Salmon’s decision until it was announced and made no attempt to influence it.
“The (state) superintendent’s position is independent by design and by practice,” said Chassé.
“That aside, it is startling that Mr. Kamenetz does not share the superintendent’s concerns given what has gone on in the Baltimore County School System on his watch,” said Chassé.
Chassé said the governor supported Salmon’s decision to delay a decision on White and “would not apologize for wanting the highest ethical standards in our school systems.”
Len Foxwell, chief of staff to Comptroller Peter Franchot, defended the decision of Salmon — an official he said he’s known for 25 years.
Anyone who believes that she would participate in a political play over something as serious as the appointment of a county school superintendent either doesn’t know Karen, doesn’t understand how state government works, or is engaging in very crude machine politics,” said Foxwell. “Either way, it’s disgraceful, and more than a little misogynistic.”
White, in a statement, said she remains interested in becoming the permanent superintendent and said Salmon does not fully understand the reason for the internal audit.
“The state superintendent appears to be unaware of the fact that the audit, one that I have been advocating for throughout this school year, was intended to review our system’s purchasing practices under past administrations,” White wrote. “There has never been any indication that procurement practices of my administration lack integrity.”
White had failed to disclose consulting fees paid to her.
The findings are similar, to a degree, to those that dogged her predecessor. But supporters of White said the circumstances surrounding the interim superintendent’s disclosure issue and that of Dance are significantly different.
Dance was found to have engaged in a pattern of lying to the school board about his outside employment, including falsifying documents.
White has said, and the school board’s ethics panel has accepted, that she made an honest mistake in filling out a form that was confusing. She has since amended her disclosures and has agreed to not engage in additional outside consulting while she is interim superintendent.
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