The following op-ed was submitted by Senator Chris West and Councilman David Marks, who represent northeastern Baltimore County.
This month, instruction for Baltimore County Public Schools’ system was disrupted by a ransomware attack, the costs of which are still not known.
We would like to thank the personnel who are working to correct the problem, as well as educators, students and their families for their patience. There are still many questions about this attack, including whether the school system paid the ransom and why security protocols were not in place as previously recommended by Maryland state auditors.
The budget for the Baltimore County Public School system regularly exceeds $2 billion. When combined with community colleges and libraries, education funding exceeds 60 percent of all County expenditures. Education is rightfully prioritized in Baltimore County, but taxpayers have many legitimate questions about whether those resources are being spent wisely.
For example, during the administration of Superintendent S. Dallas Dance, parents raised concerns about the costs of an initiative to provide laptop computers to all 113,000 students at that time. County Councilmembers have often questioned the high cost of school construction compared to other jurisdictions. And just recently, legislators have sought basic details from the school system about its response to the ransomware attack.
At the request of Baltimore County’s elected officials, over the course of the past several weeks, the Baltimore County Public School leadership has held private meetings with the Baltimore County State Senators, the Baltimore County Council and the Baltimore County House Delegation to discuss the ransomware attack. During these conversations, the school officials made little effort to level with the elected representatives of the citizens of Baltimore County. Instead, there was simply a stonewall.
No questions were asked which could compromise the ongoing investigation into the ransomware attack. Rather, reasonable questions were posed, but every question was met with a recitation of pre-scripted talking points. No information was divulged. Was personal information about students and their families accessed by the hackers? No answer. If personal information about students and their families was obtained by the hackers ,will the affected families be notified? No answer. If a decision is made to notify the affected families, how long will the school system wait to provide that notification? No answer. Has any taxpayer money been paid to the hackers? No answer. Would the Baltimore County Public School system permit Baltimore County to conduct an audit of how taxpayer money is being spent? Answer: No.
Currently, Maryland law does not permit the County Council to place any conditions on the funding of Baltimore County Public Schools. The Council can only cut, and once the budget is passed, the School Superintendent and Board of Education can shuffle money around to make the difference.
The County Council should have broader power over the school system’s budget, including the ability to set conditions on spending and to directly audit spending. The Maryland General Assembly has the power to “fence off” money in the State Budget in order to force the Governor to accede to General Assembly priorities. Unless the Governor complies with the conditions imposed upon the “fenced off” money by the General Assembly, the money cannot be spent. The County Council should have the same power with respect to the Baltimore County School System that the General Assembly has with the Governor. We will be supporting legislation in the 2021 session of the Maryland General Assembly to give the Baltimore County Executive and County Council that power.
As we talk to taxpayers around the county, it is clear that educational accountability and transparency are long overdue–and that reforms can find broad acceptance in Annapolis this spring.