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Howard School System Faces More Scrutiny

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Howard County residents weighed in on Council Chair Calvin Ball’s (D-Dist. 2) proposed resolution to create a School System Budget Review Committee during a legislative hearing in June.

The resolution also directs the county auditor to conduct a financial audit of the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS).

Fourteen residents, including a good sampling of past and current board of education (BOE) candidates, testified during the hearing, all voicing support for the measure.

Current BOE members Ellen Flynn Giles and Bess Altwerger attended the hearing to listen to public comment, but did not testify.

Corey Andrews of Elkridge asserted that the council has the right to take a stronger role in accounting for money it allocates to the school system.

“With transfers out of special education funding in previous years, questions about a health and dental fund surplus, a growing legal services budget, money spent on a secretive special education audit, para-educators cut, the diversity coordinator position cut and more, HCPSS administration has proved that it, alone, cannot be trusted to have sole responsibility for the education budget,” he said.

William Woodcock, of Columbia, a Certified Public Accountant and Howard County blogger (The 53) who focuses on political, educational and community issues, said county residents expect honesty and transparency.

“There seems to be a disconnect where the leadership of the HCPSS doesn’t have a clue what this community’s values are,” he said. “The irony is that the HCPSS used to have its own citizens budget review committee until the leadership decided it wasn’t a value-added function and disbanded the committee. Maybe now we know why that decision was made.”

Vicky Cutroneo of Highland, a current BOE candidate, charged the board with abandoning its authority to the superintendent’s agenda.

“The energy expended by them to resist this audit and the fact that I listened to a lawyer paid for by taxpayer money tell the board of education that an audit of how taxpayer money is spent is illegal convinces me even more just how necessary this audit is.”

Legal Opinion

At the BOE’s regular meeting on June 9, attorney Leslie Stellman said the resolution should be considered illegal because it goes beyond the bounds of a state statute granting counties the right to conduct a financial audit.

“It was designed 50 years ago to assist boards by avoiding boards having pay the cost of audits [themselves],” Stellman said.

In his opinion, creating a specific budget review committee constitutes a performance audit that is beyond the council’s authority. He also observed that not all the money received by the school system comes from the county, but also from the state and other sources.

Stellman said the school system maintains its own independent auditors and is also subject to auditing by the State Department of Education (MSDE), as well as legislative audits of every school system directed by the General Assembly once every six years.

“[T]his is not only redundant and unnecessary, but it then intrudes into our own budget-making process and authority in a manner that … violates Maryland State Education law, which is intended to keep our budget-making process independent,” he said.

According to state law, only the MSDE can conduct a mandatory performance audit without the board’s consent, Stellman said, adding that authority asserted against the board could erode its immunity as a state agency.

“I’m talking millions of dollars of exposure should we be deemed … a county agency, not an arm of the state government,” he said.

Open Meetings?

Budget concerns aside, the BOE was taken to task by Craig O’Donnell, a Denver Post web editor and former reporter for the Kent County News, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, for its handling of school superintendent Renee Foose’s contract renewal.

O’Donnell filed a complaint with Maryland’s State Open Meetings Compliance Board alleging that the BOE violated the Open Meetings Act by meeting behind closed doors to evaluate the superintendent’s performance and discuss the renewal of her contract.

He also alleged that the BOE did not sufficiently invite the public to attend its votes to meet in closed session, did not sufficiently disclose its reasons for meeting in closed session, and did not provide notice of two meetings in December 2015.

The compliance board found that the first two allegations fell within exceptions permitted by the Act, but agreed on the third, at least for one of the dates in question.

“From the information provided to us, it appears that the school board did not give public notice of the Dec. 3 meeting,” wrote compliance board members Jonathan Hodgson and April Ishak, in a published opinion. “[W]e have found that the school board violated the Act with regard to various public notice and disclosure requirements applicable to closed sessions subject to the Act.”

Aside from public acknowledgement and a feeble attempt to shame the BOE, the finding carries little weight and no obvious consequence.

TOD Adjustment

During the council’s public hearing in June, Councilman Jon Weinstein (D-Dist. 1) explained legislation he is sponsoring that amends zoning restrictions for the Oxford Square Transportation Oriented Development (TOD) project.

“[The developer] is concerned about the distribution of apartments and townhouses and balancing the proportion,” Weinstein said. “With the overcrowding, the Department of Planning and Zoning [DPZ] recommended that we let market rates dictate the housing mix. My Zoning Regulation Amendment is about allowing that balancing to take place; it will limit some density and address an overabundance of apartments.”

According to DPZ Director Valdis Lazdins, “the intent was to provide densities supportable of the TOD.”

The council will consider a resolution to endorse the designation of Long Reach Village as a Maryland Sustainable Community.

“The designation opens the door for state grants only available to sustainable communities, such as the Neighborhood Business Works Program,” said Kate Bolinger, a DPZ planning specialist. “The purpose of this request is to advance revitalization and reinvestment in older communities.”

The council also honored the Howard County-based greeNEWit energy solutions company, which was selected as one of the Top 100 Small Businesses in America by the Small Business Administration of the United States.

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently honored greeNEWit for its selection, recognizing the values of hard work, innovation, persistence, entrepreneurship and for its dedication to the community and contributions to supporting jobs and economic growth,” Weinstein said. The company was also honored by the Environmental Protection Agency as its EnergyStar 2016 Contractor of the year.

Weinstein noted that the business was one of the first energy efficiency companies in the state, founded by three business partners educated by the HCPSS, and has donated time and funds to 25 county elementary schools to support environment and sustainability education through assemblies and classroom activities.