Council audit aims to pressure schools Government leaders in Baltimore County want system reform

June 13, 1996|By FROM STAFF REPORTS

The Baltimore County Council's planned audit of the school facilities department is designed to keep pressure on school officials for reforms, county government leaders say.

"The purpose of the audit is more to get them to clean house," Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, said yesterday. "It will be in rebuttal to their internal audit."

But some councilmen doubt that the audit will lead to a government takeover of school construction and maintenance.

"I really don't think it will happen," mainly because of opposition in the Ruppersberger administration, said Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican and the main booster of the takeover idea.

Still, Riley said, said the audit serves a good purpose. "I think it keeps the pressure on to correct the problems. Then we win the war."

Those motives didn't sit well with school board member Robert F. Dashiell, who said, "It's unfortunate if whoever is suggesting this is not doing it in earnest, but using it as political leverage. I think it's worthy of being seriously considered and shouldn't be bandied about as some sort of political game. This is critically related to the education of children."

County government and council leaders have battled school officials for years, mainly over budget issues. The most contentious fights came during Dennis F. Rasmussen's term as executive from 1986 to 1990, when several large school budget deficits occurred, and during Stuart Berger's years as superintendent.

Last year, the council slashed $4.4 million from the school budget, equal to the largest cut in two decades. The action reflected the frustrations of the council and administration with Berger, who later was ousted, and a determination to get control of school spending.

This year's budget process hit no snags. And relations between the council and school officials generally were amicable -- until air quality problems at Deer Park Elementary School triggered an inquiry into the facilities department.

An internal audit, released last month, detailed illegal and improper bidding practices, as well as mismanagement. Since the problems emerged, several of the department's key managers have been reassigned or dismissed.

County officials say the council's audit will explain the nature of problems in the department.

"I do believe their system is seriously, seriously, seriously, broke," said Fred Homan, county budget director.

But shifting control of school maintenance and construction to the county government would complicate matters, he said. For example, curriculum officials would want a say in the design of new buildings, but they would have to appeal to county officials to get it.

Dashiell said he would support county control of facilities only if a number of conditions were met. The arrangement, he said, should not impede the school board's ability to conduct educational programs; the county must allocate more money so the department can better maintain the 160 school buildings; and county officials must come up with a better plan to run the department.

Board member Kathy Cohn is not sure a takeover would work, but would like to see the government and school district share people and resources, as they did last winter when school facilities workers helped the county with snow removal.

"There's a wealth of experienced people and resources that we may be duplicating and not using properly," she said. "It would be useful to discuss how we can help each other out."

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III said he's glad the council is doing the audit, but doesn't believe the immediate issue is whether the county takes over construction and maintenance. "That's something we're going to have to look at down the road," he said.

He said he couldn't say before the audit is done whether he would support a takeover. "If it's a good idea, I'll be behind it."

Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, said, "I'm serious about examining the possibility of [a takeover] happening."

The audit is "another step to demand accountability" for education spending, Kamenetz said.

Pub Date: 6/13/96

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