The Deer Park debacle Not just a health issue: Botched renovation reflects lack of school accountability.

April 15, 1996

THE BOTCHED renovation that has made Randallstown's Deer Park Elementary a sick building stems from a larger problem afflicting school systems throughout Maryland: lack of accountability. School systems here enjoy tremendous freedom from local government, a condition designed to give educators more power than politicians over school-related decisions. This arrangement has merit when it comes to instructional matters. But on fiscal matters, it has led to inefficiency and irresponsibility.

Who is answerable to the public for the waste of $1.5 million on the Deer Park project? Who is accountable for endangering children for two years by leaving them in a school infected with molds, bacteria and leaking anti-freeze? The answer is the school board. Others are more directly to blame -- school facilities staffers, who oversaw the project and persistently ignored parents' pleas for help; the superintendent, who should have known what they were doing. Still, they work for the board.

Unfortunately, board members are immune to the consequences of what they do. Baltimore County's board is not elected and not responsible to anyone who is. The governor, who appoints the board members, doesn't get involved in local education. Even in counties where boards are elected, their lack of taxing authority means they can never truly be held accountable on money issues.

At Deer Park, this built-in lack of accountability translated into a lack of responsiveness. Consciously or subconsciously, school systems are less motivated to address parents' concerns knowing there is no one to answer to if they do not.

Across the region, county executives want more authority over non-instructional school spending. This is not a mere quest for power for power's sake. Executives and councils trying to meet public demand for well-run government are frustrated by repeated cost overruns on school projects, problems such as Deer Park and being held responsible for spending they can't control. No one can predict how much better school systems will be managed if they get such authority. But the fact that elected leaders know we can boot them out of office probably gives them a greater incentive to get things done -- and done well.

Pub Date: 4/15/96

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