School for Blind is targeted for more oversight Bill would create board to monitor state allocation

February 07, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

The Maryland School for the Blind -- criticized for questionable spending of public funds -- would have an independent board of directors to monitor its use of $10 million received annually from the state, under legislation before the General Assembly.

A large turnout is expected today in Annapolis, where the bill is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.

"The school has for a long time spent a lot of public money without much public accountability," said Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind. "There should be more public scrutiny."

Public officials have expressed concerns about the school's paying nearly $300,000 in severances and bonuses to employees. Lawmakers and others also have been alarmed about officials' private discussions of the future use of the school's 95 acres on Taylor Avenue near Belair Road in Overlea.

Parents of students and former staff members complained about major reorganization in 1994 that saw five popular program directors fired, two board members resign and 40 other staff members quit or have their positions abolished -- changes that they say the school has yet to recover from.

School officials defended their restructuring of the 190-student facility, which has private status but is funded primarily with public money. Problems of low morale and safety concerns have been corrected, they say.

The bill -- introduced by Sen. John J. Hafer, a Western Maryland Republican, and by a group of delegates, including Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore City Democrat and speaker pro tem -- would establish a seven-member, unpaid board appointed by the governor. It would be composed of a senator, delegate, representative of the State Department of Education, a finance officer from the school, a student's parent and two people who are blind.

"If approved, the board would help develop and approve the budget request that is submitted annually to the secretary of the Education Department," said Mary Beth Pirolozzi, an aide to Mr. Hafer.

The school has a self-appointed board of volunteers, and opponents of the bill contend that a new board would be redundant.

"We were surprised by the bill," said the school's president, Louis M. Tutt.

"In talking with our board members, the problem with the bill is that it appears that what this proposed board would do is already being undertaken by the State Department of Education," Mr. Tutt said.

Sharon Maneki, leader of Maryland chapter of the national federation, said the School for the Blind "has operated in a vacuum too long."

She said many of the chapter's 1,000 members plan to attend the hearing.

In October, a joint legislative committee recommended closer state scrutiny of the school.

A partial solution was reached when Del. Katherine Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat whose 8th District includes the Overlea area, was appointed to the school's board of directors in December.

"I have talked with the bill's sponsors, and I want to hear other opinions," Ms. Klausmeier said. "But do we need another board? Do we need another layer of bureaucracy?"

Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Perry Hall Democrat who chairs the Finance Committee, said: "I think some of the problems at the school have been resolved with the appointment of a legislator to the already existing board.

"But there are those who say the school's troubles are not over and are looking for greater oversight."

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