Mismanaging school facilities System must answer questions, then let county run its buildings.

June 01, 1996

THE SCATHING internal audit of the Baltimore County school facilities department released this week makes it clear that the renovation screw-up at Deer Park Elementary was symptomatic of greater ills.

The best that can be said is that auditors have found no evidence of outright corruption -- of school officials on the take or steering business toward cronies -- though Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione's decision to refer the matter to the county attorney seems to indicate a suspicion of malfeasance.

The contents of the audit are disturbing enough even if school facilities officials were merely incompetent. They have mismanaged millions of dollars of public money. Some of the behavior alleged in the audit -- breaking procurement laws designed to keep costs down by requiring that contracts be awarded to the lowest competitive bidder -- is criminal.

Who should be held accountable for this, and what should be done about it now?

The problems coincide with the appointment of Faith C. Hermann as facilities director three years ago. Ms. Hermann, it appears, was in over her head. She was an educator, not an expert in buildings. Why then-Superintendent Stuart Berger believed her qualified to run the facilities department remains a mystery.

Mr. Berger was let go last year, but school board members can and should be asked to explain why they approved her appointment. Do they simply take a superintendent's word when he fills an important post, even if the appointee's qualifications don't seem to fit the job?

Questions also need to be asked of Acting Deputy Superintendent Robert H. Chapman III, who was Ms. Hermann's direct supervisor.

Dr. Marchione has called for an external investigation and pledged to clean up the department. Regarding the latter, he ought to save himself the trouble. The superintendent and Board of Education should hand school construction and maintenance over to the county.

This makes sense from an efficiency standpoint and an accountability standpoint, because the county executive ultimately is responsible for the money spent on school facilities.

In Baltimore County's case, it makes sense from a standpoint of public trust, too, since faith in the school system's ability to do this job is eroding by the day.

Pub Date: 06/01/96

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