If you know me, you know that I put a high priority on openness, transparency, and accountability in government. The more information citizens and elected officials have, the better the policy choices made, and the better quality of life for all. Unfortunately, when it comes to the School Administration’s response to the latest ransomware attack and its response to the coronavirus pandemic, there has been little, if any openness, transparency, and accountability.
One main reason the school system continues to operate this way is because they do not have to answer to Baltimore County Government. It is astonishing to many to hear for the first time that despite the county appropriating over a billion dollars per year to the schools, the County Council/County Government has very little power of oversight over the decisions of the school system. Only once a year during the budget process does the County have a regularly scheduled ability to question BCPS priorities and policies. However, it is often difficult to get meaningful and complete answers from the System.
All public-school systems in Maryland, including the BCPS are chartered by the State of Maryland, with the local Boards of Education serving as the controlling authority. For the Council to have broader oversight and in particular, investigatory/auditing authority, and the ability to have a meaningful role in certain decisions made by the school system, state law would need to be changed. I would hope that the Maryland General Assembly’s Baltimore County Delegation would be open to such changes.
The following are updates regarding the status of the BCPS Ransomware Attack, as well as ongoing issues with virtual learning. In addition, I will discuss the County’s decision regarding youth sports, a position I disagree with.
The Ransomware Attack
On Wednesday, members of the Council and I met with the Superintendent and his staff concerning the ransomware attack. The enclosed article here from the Baltimore Brew essentially explains the information (or lack thereof) that we received, at the briefing.
The meeting was frustrating for lack of specifics. It is understandable to some extent not to divulge details if it jeopardizes the ongoing law enforcement investigation (FBI, local Police, etc.) However, the meeting did not even reveal generalities regarding the attack. We do not know whether the school system has been in contact with the hackers. We also do not know if they have or have not taken a position on whether to consider paying the ransom (which would be a huge mistake and potentially illegal), or how much the attackers are asking. We also do not know how long the school system knew about this vulnerability.
As you may know, it has been reported that BCPS received the final copy of a State Legislative Audit the day prior to Thanksgiving. However, as a former auditor for the school system, I do know that it is common practice for preliminary findings to be shared with the client (in this case the school system), well before the final report is issued. And as a matter of fact, it has been confirmed from other reporting that the administration at BCPS knew about these vulnerabilities as far back as 2019.
The question remains, did the school system act when it knew it was so vulnerable to what could be a catastrophic cyber-attack? Taxpayers deserve answers, and, so far, the Executive Staff of the BCPS has not been forthcoming. Have student’s records been compromised, including health and personal information? What about curriculum’s and financial information?
In the meantime, it is vital that the School System commit to not negotiate or pay any ransom that the hackers are demanding. Any decision to do so would set a terrible precedent and make the School system more vulnerable to future attacks.
Ongoing Issues with Virtual Learning
Since last July I have been calling for BCPS to implement at the very least a hybrid system of learning in which those families who wished to have in person learning for their children would be able to safely send their children to school, while those who did not wish to have their children attend continue to use the existing online system of learning.
Since then, I have continued to ask the school system for their plans on a safe return to school. While they have responded that they are ‘working’ on such plans, to date no information has been made available. I continue to be extremely concerned that our children are falling behind. The many reports of depression, lower test scores, and lack of socialization for this generation of public-school children should disturb us all, considering that private schools, largely up until the Thanksgiving holiday had been operating on a hybrid system. The equity divide is only widening.
The fact that other jurisdictions in the United States and around the world have operated relatively successfully on a hybrid model should give confidence to BCPS that these systems safely work, even during this dangerous period. I continue to support efforts to reopen our public schools.
The Recent Decision to Cancel County Sponsored Youth Sports
I have spoken with the Administration regarding the closure of Recreation and Parks sponsored youth sports. As I have stated before, with the lack of in person instruction, outdoor recreation is an important but missing component in the lives of County children and should only be canceled as a matter of last resort.
While I do disagree with this decision, I have also had a substantive and respectful dialogue with the Administration about this. I have asked for the data that the County used to base this decision, and, as soon as I receive it, am happy to share it with you. Additionally, it is also my understanding that the County does not want to be liable should someone contract the virus while playing a county organized sport.
Going forward, I continue to advocate on the issues discussed here. Schools need to reopen, and county sponsored sports continue. The citizens of Baltimore County must be informed of the details of the BCPS Ransomware situation giving families the opportunity to protect personal information, if necessary. Baltimore County Government continues to offer its many resources to help resolve the ongoing issues in restoring BCPS computer systems. I would encourage the BCPS administration to take the County up on its offer. Furthermore, it is vital that all of us continue to put pressure on the BCPS to reopen and be open, transparent, and accountable.