College leaders return computers to schools $25,000 in public funds was used to buy PCs for officials' homes

February 27, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Leaders of Baltimore County's community colleges -- stung by public criticism amid a cost-cutting reorganization -- have decided to return $25,000 worth of computers and other equipment that were purchased with public funds and placed in the homes of eight trustees.

College officials said yesterday that the equipment will be returned to classrooms.

"It seems we were talking about the issue at every board meeting, people asking questions about the computers," board Vice President Bruce J. Chaillou said yesterday.

"The concept was wholeheartedly adopted by the board," he said. "But there was this public perception of the board receiving equipment that was not available to college faculty members or staff administrators."

The board's decision, Mr. Chaillou said, was reached after a meeting this month with Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III and Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz.

"I praise them for seeing a serious mistake and putting the computers back in the classrooms where they're needed," Mr. Ruppersberger said. "A move that was intended to be progressive and innovative, got them off to a bad start at a time they are attempting to gain confidence with the public and their employees."

The board's decision comes amid a controversial restructuring punctuated by budget cuts, employee "dislocations" and announced student tuition increases.

Since being hired in June, system Chancellor Daniel J. LaVista has been dogged by criticism while trying to lead the reorganization at the two-year schools in Catonsville, Dundalk and Essex. The system, Maryland's largest, has 70,000 full- and part-time students.

Earlier this month, he publicly apologized for a buyout plan that could have led eligible employees to line up at half-past midnight. And while consolidating services and courses, Dr. LaVista, who is paid $130,000 annually, has been criticized for building a new headquarters staff in offices in Towson.

Dr. LaVista, however, has told county officials he will save more than $1 million once his plan is complete.

Regarding the computers, the board's vice chairman said the trustees have agreed to independently purchase computers to continue the improved communication through e-mail.

He added that the equipment was not diverted from classroom use, as an official initially said, but was purchased through a separate fund in the system's budget.

David C. England, the system's vice chancellor for planning and information systems, said officials have not decided where the powerful computers will wind up.

"In the very near future, we'll find where those computers have the most impact, where they are most needed," Mr. England said. He said the campuses have "thousands" of computers in place.

Dr. LaVista earlier had defended the move to provide trustees with computers at home. The computers saved time and allowed trustees to acquaint themselves with technology, he said.

But in December, the county attorney issued an opinion that said trustees could not make official decisions or take other executive actions through the home computer network, because it would have violated the state open meetings law.

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