School chief salary flap explained Letter was kept from Carroll board

January 14, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

It took some persistance from a local activist to extract the whole story behind the school superintendent's contract imbroglio.

Over and over again since August, Wayne Cogswell has asked the Carroll County school board:

Why did the board say it couldn't, by law, release the superintendent's contract, and then do it anyway? And why did it reverse that position last month and propose a policy to make contracts public for all future superintendents?

Yesterday, Mr. Cogswell got his answer, but not without some more pressing.

At its regular meeting, the school board approved a policy to reveal superintendent contracts. But the policy, as it turns out, only clarifies what already is state law.

The board's attorney, Edward J. Gutman of Baltimore, said the area is a gray one. But after checking with the state attorney general's office, he said he believes the contracts should be public.

The twist is, he told that to former school board President Cheryl McFalls in a letter July 29. But she didn't tell anyone else on the board until December.

Earlier that month, the contract's built-in pay raises had sparked much controversy among Carroll residents and school employee unions. Superintendent R. Edward Shilling's salary is $104,626 and will be as high as $118,126 by the time it expires in June 1995, as long as teachers receive their raises.

It may have cost her the election and been a mistake, but Mrs. McFalls said she doesn't regret keeping the July 29 legal opinion to herself.

It was the opposite of what lawyers had advised her before, and Mrs. McFalls said she saw no need to discredit the lawyers, since Mr. Shilling volunteered to make his contract public anyway.

The confusion around the issue was the result of an unusual set of circumstances, Mr. Gutman told Mr. Cogswell at yesterday's meeting.

Until July 29, Mr. Gutman said, his office had advised the school board that all but the salary was part of Mr. Shilling's personnel record and therefore private.

Mr. Gutman said that by July 29, he had checked with the attorney general's office and determined that the issue was not clear, but he advised Mrs. McFalls to make the contract public.

Mrs. McFalls said that the next day, before she had a chance to let the board know of the legal opinion, Mr. Shilling on his own volunteered to let the contract be made public.

"Since in my mind the situation would be put to rest, it seemed a moot point to me at that time," Mrs. McFalls said yesterday. Although she lost the election in November and is no longer on the board, she attended yesterday's meeting.

Mrs. McFalls said she did not have a chance to tell other board members of the letter before Mr. Shilling's decision to go public.

"You've had all this time to do something about it," Mr. Cogswell said to the board after the story unfolded. "I have been at every board meeting and brought this up. I queried Mrs. McFalls at various times in the campaign."

Mr. Gutman told Mr. Cogswell it was unfair to blame the board, because members didn't know about the July 29 letter until December, when Mr. Gutman asked Mrs. McFalls whether she had discussed the letter with them.

Mr. Cogswell raised the biggest protest at a meeting in August, when he refused to stop speaking and the board adjourned the meeting until he left.

Mrs. McFalls was not at that meeting and therefore couldn't set the record straight, Mr. Gutman said.

He said Mrs. McFalls had assumed the issue was resolved when Mr. Shilling went public.

Mr. Cogswell apologized to any board members he accused of lying and secrecy, if they were themselves kept in the dark by Mrs. McFalls.

He also said he wondered whether he really should apologize to anyone.

"I still have to sort this out in my mind," he said.

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