Carroll Commissioners Julia W. Gouge and Elmer C. Lippy did a pathetic job of making their case before the General Assembly for the authority to conduct a performance audit of the county's education department. The commissioners' failure guarantees this bill will be killed in committee, as it was last year. That's a shame because a well-executed performance audit would be invaluable in analyzing the school system's management practices and the effectiveness of its spending, which now consumes 53 percent of the county government's operating budget.
Since the commissioners have been fighting with the school board for nearly four years over whether to have a performance audit, one would assume that they would be intimately familiar with the subject. Apparently that assumption is wrong. In describing his conception of a performance audit to the House Ways and Means Committee, Mr. Lippy made a terribly inappropriate analogy to pornography: "I can't describe" it, he said, "but I know it when I see it." That answer was not persuasive.
When Del. Ray Huff, D-Anne Arundel, pointed out that the commissioners could use their control over the education department's budget as a "hammer," the commissioners should have responded that using that tool without any analysis would be akin to banging away at one's thumb. Instead, the legislators were left thinking the commissioners can use the budget to control education spending. In reality, if the commissioners meddle in the school budget with the limited knowledge they have now, they are likely to hurt rather than help the school system.
The recent results from the Maryland School Performance and Assessment Program indicate Carroll's schools are performing well and the approximately $65 million of county money is well spent. That does not mean there isn't room for improvement. A well-executed performance audit would not only give the commissioners valuable information, it might enable school administrators to identify inefficiencies.
With the likely failure of this bill again, the school board will have to agree voluntarily to a performance audit. Given that this important policy question has degenerated into an ugly political squabble, the likelihood of the board acquiescing is becoming increasingly remote. The commissioners have themselves to blame.