Balto. Co. schools pay $57,000 in settlement to fired officials Managers contended dismissals unfair

December 19, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Three former Baltimore County school facilities managers -- ousted in May in the wake of air quality problems at Deer Park Elementary School and reports of bidding violations -- have been paid settlements totaling nearly $57,000, according to documents obtained by The Sun.

Robert Klein, William J. Moran Jr. and James F. Patton, who claimed in an appeal that they were unfairly blamed for problems described in audits of the department, received four months' salary apiece, in payments that began early last month.

That amounted to $20,076.64 for Klein and $18,390.78 each for Moran and Patton, plus extended health benefits for a year.

By paying the former managers, the Baltimore County school system avoided two days of public hearings at which the three would have told their stories for the first time, and dredged up the spring controversies.

Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione would not discuss the decision yesterday, saying through a spokesman that he would not speak about personnel matters.

Information about the settlement has been murky for weeks. On Nov. 19, Marchione denied that a settlement had been reached, though the employees' attorney said at the time it was final. Records show that the payments were made Nov. 8 and Nov. 15.

The school system produced the documents yesterday -- the deadline for answering a Maryland Freedom of Information Act request made by The Sun on Nov. 18.

Board members, who were told of the settlement for the first time in a closed meeting Tuesday night, said administrators agreed to the payments because they believed the school system was likely to lose the appeal.

Board member Robert F. Dashiell questioned why Marchione didn't tell the board before agreeing to the settlements.

"I've got some real problems with the fact that the board didn't have to approve these amounts," he said.

"We were told that historically it was the kind of discretion a superintendent has enjoyed. My point is what if it had been a million dollars? We can't have a system where the superintendent can spend unlimited funds without board approval. There's got to be some limit," Dashiell said.

George A. Nilson, attorney for the former employees, said the settlement remedies what he called an unfair dismissal.

He said that before they lost their jobs, the employees -- who had exceptional records -- never got a chance to respond to the allegations in the May audit of the department, which made only general conclusions without identifying people or projects.

"From my clients' perspective, the superintendent believed there were problems in the facilities department and someone had to be blamed for them so that he and others wouldn't be blamed for them," Nilson said. "And my clients felt they were victims of the superintendent's need to blame somebody."

The settlements present a curious twist in a controversy that erupted in the spring, when parents forced Deer Park Elementary to close and audits alleged widespread mismanagement and violations of bidding and procurement laws and practices.

On May 29, the day after the main departmental audit was released, County Council Chairman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, told The Sun, "If I were in charge, heads would roll."

And two days later, they did.

Klein, then maintenance supervisor; Moran, then capital projects specialist; and Patton, then indoor air quality specialist, were told their annual contracts would not be renewed.

Officially, they were informed only that their positions were to be eliminated in a reorganization. But unlike other department workers affected by the reorganization, who were told months in advance they would lose their jobs, the three managers were told to vacate their offices on the next business day.

They appealed the dismissal, and hearings were scheduled for mid-October but canceled a day or two before they were to start as the two parties neared an agreement. In response to a request from a reporter, the employees had said they would allow the hearing to be public, and had notified the school system that they wanted it to be public.

Board members said they were told in the closed meeting Tuesday night that the school system would likely lose the appeal because the employees held professional licenses that qualified them for other jobs in the department.

Board members didn't ask Marchione when the settlement had been reached or why people who had been blamed for the problems in facilities were now being paid. Some board members reserved comment, saying they wanted to mull over the events.

The school system has replaced the department's top management, but still has not identified who was responsible for the problems, the amount of money involved, or the projects allegedly tainted.

In the spring, Marchione pledged to pursue the audit's findings, and county auditors are now investigating the department's practices, but no organized effort is under way to answer those questions.

Board member Jack Barnhart said he was comfortable with the settlement.

"I totally agreed with the way [Marchione] handled it, even though the board had no involvement whatsoever," he said. "Once you second-guess the person you've chosen to run the education department, that ties his hands. He should be given the rein to make adjustments as he sees them necessary."

Pub Date: 12/19/96

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