What We Know About the Prior Investigation into Alleged Fraudulent Graduation Rates

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

Earlier this month, four Prince George’s County board of education members raised hackles when they alleged that graduation rates in the county schools had been inflated through grade fixing and other tactics. The board members — Edward Burroughs, David Murray, Raaheela Ahmed, and Juwan Blocker — asked Governor Larry Hogan to order an investigation into the claims of fraud. Schools CEO Kevin Maxwell and other school officials have denied the allegations, citing an investigation by the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) conducted earlier this year that cleared the schools of any wrongdoing.

But State Delegate Jay Walker has publicly questioned whether the MSDE investigation was sufficiently thorough, and on June 25 Governor Larry Hogan sent a letter requesting that the MSDE conduct a “complete, thorough, and exhaustive” investigation into the allegations.

So, why order a second investigation? How thorough was the investigation that was completed earlier this year? A letter sent to the U.S. Department of Education describes the previous MSDE investigation in detail. (Scroll to the end of the post to find the letter in full.) Here is what we know about the investigation:

  1. When did the investigation occur? The investigation was conducted in January 2017, but it was a follow-up on an informal inquiry that had occurred the previous year. In July 2016, Patrick Rooney, deputy director of the United States Department of Education’s (USDE) Office of State Support had sent a letter to Maryland State Superintendent Karen Salmon informing her of an anonymous tip made to his office, alleging that Schools CEO Maxwell was forcing grade changes in order to boost graduation rates. The letter included mention of two high schools in particular. After receiving the letter, Salmon contacted Maxwell about the allegations, and he denied them. Nothing further was done until the MSDE received a phone call in December 2016 from the USDE asking for an update on the investigation.
  2. Who conducted the investigation? The January investigation seems to have been conducted by a single person, Carol Williamson, chief academic officer of the Office of the Deputy for Teaching and Learning, and a former superintendent of Queen Anne’s County Public Schools. The investigation was preceded by a meeting between Williamson and Maxwell on December 12, 2016.
  3. What was the scope of the investigation? The investigation consisted of 1) looking at graduation rate data, 2) meeting with Kevin Maxwell, and 3) interviewing Maxwell and four others. Carol Williamson looked at the graduation data for the county for the past five years and for the two high schools mentioned in the complaint. She discussed the graduation data with Maxwell at the December meeting, and in January she interviewed Maxwell and four other PGCPS employees: an instructional director, a data management and strategy analyst, a special project officer*, and a deputy superintendent.
  4. How were the interviewees selected? How long was each interview? The employees interviewed were referred by Maxwell. It appears that none of the employees interviewed is in a school-based position. Williamson writes, “At the conclusion of our [December] meeting I asked him to identify others with whom I could talk. I asked to talk with the principals’ supervisors for the two high schools, with someone involved in grade collection on transcripts, with someone responsible for school counselors, etc.” Each interview was between 30 and 45 minutes long. According to Williamson, the discussions were thorough, and each person interviewed was “very proud of the work being done in the school system.” (See the letter below for a list of questions asked.)
  5. Who knew — or didn’t know — about the investigation? In a statement issued on June 20, Board Members Burroughs, Ahmed, Murray, and Blocker claimed that they were not informed of the MSDE investigation. They write, “We were absolutely unaware that MSDE had done an investigation on the matter earlier this year. Neither the CEO nor Board leadership informed us of it previous to yesterday evening, when it went out as a blast to school system stakeholders and the media.”

Weekly News Roundup: Fraud Indictment, Credit Cards, Football

Board of Education member Lyn Mundey was indicted Tuesday on charges of illegally obtaining reduced-price school meals for her child. Mundey is one of five employees of the Government Accountability Office charged with falsifying documents in order to quality for reduced-price meals. The GAO had been conducting a study last year of possible beneficiary fraud within the school lunch program, when it found that some of its own employees were abusing the system. Mundey was already scheduled to leave the Board this month so that she could pursue a doctorate. She had been appointed by County Executive Baker to fill the position left by Carletta Fellows, who had resigned after being censured for misuse of a Board-issued credit card. (Washington Post, WUSA 9)

In January of this year, the Prince George’s County Board of Education voted to eliminate their Board-issued credit cards, which had been used for meals and hotels — sometimes within minutes of their homes — at taxpayer expense. But the Board voted to delay cancellation of the credit cards until April 1, and some Board members continued to use their credit cards months after the January vote. (NBC Washington)

County Executive Baker released a statement on Friday in support of the Purple Line. (County Executive) Later the same day, the County Council praised the County Executive’s decision to increase the Purple Line funding contribution by $20 million. (Prince George’s County Council) Read the Washington Post’s story on the decision to increase funding here.

Continue reading