Ousted school officials drop appeals Parties in Balto. Co. differ over resolution

November 21, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Three former Baltimore County school facilities managers ousted in May amid allegations of bidding violations and mismanagement have dropped appeals contesting their dismissals -- prompting speculation by a school board member that a financial settlement is in the works.

The three -- Robert Klein, former maintenance supervisor; William J. Moran Jr., former capital projects specialist; and James F. Patton, former air and water quality specialist -- are no longer requesting hearings to argue for compensation for lost earnings and tell their story, said their attorney, George A. Nilson.

The former employees had claimed they were made scapegoats for the bungled $2.2 million renovation of Deer Park Elementary School and other facilities problems.

Their abrupt dismissal May 31 came three days after the release of a scathing audit of the department, which led to a preliminary inquiry by the FBI, still under way.

Both sides refused to discuss the matter this week, but they seemed at odds over whether it has been resolved.

Nilson said the decision to drop the appeals was final. But Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione, who would not comment because it is a personnel issue, said: "As far as I'm concerned it's still in process."

Meanwhile, five school board members said this week they had heard nothing about an agreement. However, some acknowledged that it would be odd for former employees to pay an attorney at prestigious Piper & Marbury to fight a dismissal, then suddenly cancel the hearings and go away with nothing in return.

"Let's put it this way," said Robert F. Dashiell, a board member and a lawyer. "Generally when cases and hearings are dismissed, it's because the parties have reached some kind of compromise. In cases where the relief claimed by the petitioners for a sum of money, generally it means that the respondent has agreed to pay some amount."

Dashiell said he was told by board President Paul Cunningham on Tuesday night, in response to questions from a Sun reporter, that no settlement had been reached.

"I've been assured that if there were to be a settlement that required the payment of funds, no such payment could be finalized without approval by the Board of Education," Dashiell said.

Officially, the three former managers were told that their positions were being eliminated in a reorganization and that the dismissal was necessary for budgetary reasons, Moran said in June.

Marchione told The Sun at the time -- without naming the employees -- that the positions were cut as a result of restructuring because of problems uncovered in the audit.

Managers receive blame

But it was clear that blame was being assigned to the three managers. A number of other facilities employees had been told months in advance that they would lose their jobs in a cost-cutting move. The three managers were told to vacate their offices the next business day.

Moran, Klein and Patton claimed in their appeals that there was no budgetary need for their dismissal; that they were denied the rights afforded colleagues; and that they were not given the chance to respond to the allegations before the audit was published, as they had been promised.

Hearings before a school system hearing officer were scheduled for Oct. 14 and 16. On request from a reporter, Nilson said at one point it was likely, but not certain, that the employees would allow the media to attend the hearings.

The day before the hearings,Hilson said they had been canceled, and that the dispute was nearly resolved.

'Life goes on'

Patton and Moran, each reached at home, had almost identical responses when asked if they had a settlement with the school system. Both said, "I don't know what you're talking about." Asked if they weren't eager to tell their stories in a hearing, both said, "Life goes on."

Klein did not return repeated calls.

All three former employees have new jobs, Nilson said.

The questions about the appeals come as school board members continue to ask for explanations about the problems outlined in the audit.

Work amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars was not competitively bid, and projects were misrepresented to gain board approval, the audit said. But the audit did not name who was responsible or specify dollar figures or projects.

In May, Marchione pledged to order an outside audit to more thoroughly investigate the allegations made in the first audit. Subsequently, auditors for the county government began their own audit of the department. Marchione said that audit would fulfill his needs.

However, County Auditor Brian Rowe said this week that the audit, expected to be released in late February, will not look for or assign blame, but rather investigate what went wrong, whether necessary changes have been made, and the feasibility of the county government taking over school facilities.

The original audit led to sweeping changes in the department's management, and school officials say the proper procedures now are being followed.

"Things are still unclear -- how were these things allowed to happen, under whose watch?" asked board member Dunbar Brooks. "How come the higher-ups didn't know, or did the higher-ups know? It didn't get to the board, so clearly someone didn't want this information to get to the board.

"We need to know how they were able to hide these things so we know in the future the right questions to ask, in case people are dumb enough to try and do the same things again."

Board members said the board and its lawyers are trying to find a way to interview relevant employees about the problems without compromising the board's objectivity in case it has to sit in judgment on related personnel cases.

"The board is being kept dumb on this matter, and it's frustrated board members to no end," Brooks said.

Pub Date: 11/21/96

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