Berger buyout still raising questions Deal to pay $300,000 to Balto. Co. schools chief remains unclear

November 06, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

More than a year after a $300,000 buyout shed the county of controversial Baltimore County schools Superintendent Stuart Berger, questions still swirl around the deal.

Key school leaders were told the county had agreed to foot the bill so it would not come out of the pot that funds the classroom.

The school system's former budget and finance director says that she was instructed to work out a quiet way of transferring buyout money from the county to the school budget -- and that the county executive wanted it done confidentially.

But County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger says he had nothing to do with the buyout talks, except an offer to consider helping with money, once he knew the figure. A transfer never happened, and the school system picked up the tab.

"We've been bamboozled," said board member Robert F. Dashiell, who intends to bring up the matter with the school board, prompted by Berger's recent revelations about the closed-door negotiations.

The belief that the county budget would fund the payoff "certainly was a significant factor in my mind," in voting for the buyout, Dashiell said.

"I saw no urgency in terms of being rid of Berger in making that expenditure, particularly at a time when there was a spending freeze and teachers couldn't buy chalk or erasers at some schools," Dashiell said. "I think somebody's got to answer for it."

Michael Davis, Ruppersberger's spokesman, said the county executive never promised to pay for the buyout and was not privy to the negotiations until the settlement was final -- though he made clear his displeasure with the former superintendent and used Berger's picture in a television campaign ad when he was running for office.

Ruppersberger originally offered to pay expenses when it became evident the board wanted to end the contract, Davis said. But he didn't pursue the offer when he found out how much had been offered -- more than twice Berger's $121,000 annual salary.

"They never asked again, and we never volunteered," Davis said. "The board hired him, and the board bought him out. We were surprised the price was as high as it was, but that's what the two parties agreed to."

But according to Dashiell and Jane G. Moncure, the former school system budget and finance director who left in August after her position was eliminated, some key school officials were told the money was coming from the county budget.

Here is their version of the events:

In summer 1995, while former board president Calvin Disney, Berger and the lawyers were negotiating the buyout, board members asked where the money would come from. Disney said the county had agreed to fund the payoff, Dashiell said.

Weeks after Berger's Aug. 1 departure, Dashiell, at a board meeting, asked Disney about the transfer of money, according to Dashiell and Moncure.

"He said it hadn't happened yet," Dashiell said. "They were trying to figure out a way of doing it without attracting a lot of attention."

Disney, who resigned his seat in July, declined to comment.

Shortly after Berger left, Moncure was told by acting deputy superintendent Robert H. Chapman to "work with the county budget office to implement an agreement that had been made between the county executive and the board," and that the county would reimburse the schools for the buyout, Moncure said.

"I was told that the county executive's office wished the arrangement to be kept confidential," she said.

Moncure said she told Chapman that the legal way to handle such a transfer is to request a supplement to the school budget and get the County Council's approval.

Shortly after, she was told that county officials were upset that she knew about this arrangement and had been discussing it with a county budget analyst.

"The implication was that I shouldn't know," she said.

The deal remained in limbo for months.

Each month, as Berger received his payments, school finance officials puzzled over the question of where ultimately to categorize the money on the books, Moncure said.

In the spring, Moncure said, she told superintendent Anthony G. Marchione and the board's budget committee that the deadline was approaching to ask for a supplement and requested direction on how to close the books.

She was told to call the county's administrative officer, Merreen E. Kelly.

Marchione eventually called back and said there would be no supplement, she said.

Chapman -- who retired in June amid scathing audits of the facilities department, which reported to him -- refused to comment on the deal. Kelly and budget and finance director Fred Homan did not return phone calls.

Schools spokesman Donald I. Mohler did not respond directly to Moncure's statements but said that Marchione "was never aware of any deal."

Some school board members who were interviewed said they recalled hearing that Ruppersberger had offered to help with buyout expenses.

Others had no such recollections. Most said that, in the end, they assumed the school system paid the bill.

Several County Council members said they knew nothing of a plan for the county to pay, and said they probably would not have agreed to a payment that large had it come before them.

"It certainly struck me as if it were a lot of money being wasted, but I'm happy with the improved relationship that exists today," said council chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville Democrat.

Some council members said the perception was that Ruppersberger played a key role in Berger's ouster.

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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