Boards try to resolve differences

Education body has troubled relationship with commissioners

Meeting on Wednesday

Public budget hearing to come a day after panels attempt peace

May 02, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Just after sunrise on Wednesday, two of Carroll's most influential boards will stand at twenty paces -- and then maybe release a dove.

After two rocky months debating fiscal irregularities and mismanagement in school construction, the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education are scheduled to meet at 7 a.m. at school headquarters to resolve their differences.

The meeting comes a day before the public hearing on the fiscal year 2000 budget.

All spring, the two boards have been in a standoff over cost overruns and potential legal costs stemming from botched school construction.

At one public meeting in late March, the commissioners took the unusual step of angrily grilling school board members and Superintendent William H. Hyde about incomplete proposals. Weeks later, two of the three commissioners threatened to withhold county funding for Century High School if school officials did not agree with their idea to increase the size of the facility from 1,200 to 1,600 students.

"Yes, there are strained issues," admitted Commissioner Donald I. Dell. "But everybody's trying to be professional on both sides."

One major point of contention is cost overruns in four of the first five school construction projects started after Carroll's taxes were raised in 1995 to pay for new facilities in response to the county's rapid growth.

Cranberry Station Elementary, under construction in Westminster, is a year behind schedule and more than $1.7 million over budget -- more than 20 percent above its proposed $8 million budget. School officials are debating whether to conduct a performance audit of the project -- which has two lawsuits pending from a former contractor.

In addition, school officials face a lawsuit and the possibility of state penalties for building Francis Scott Key High School's wastewater treatment plant without required state environmental and construction permits.

The high school's sewage now is hauled daily to Westminster's treatment plant at a cost of about $110,000 a year. A lawsuit filed by neighbors seeks to have the school system dismantle the $800,000 plant.

Another flash point between the boards is disagreement over the size of $28 million Century High School, scheduled to open in the fall of 2001 to relieve overcrowding at Liberty High School. While school officials maintain that a 1,200-student facility is needed, the commissioners want to increase Century's capacity by 400 students, which many observers say could jeopardize state funding for a second high school in Westminster.

At this week's meeting, consultants are expected to report on the feasibility of opening Century at 1,200 students, but building in options for future expansion if needed.

Such back and forth has left parents and other political observers wondering what is truly going on behind the scenes as millions of taxpayer dollars hang in the balance.

"There is a lot of micromanaging going on," said Susan Ullrich, co-chairwoman of Citizens for Schools, a grass-roots advocacy group. "I think the commissioners have a real problem handing over a budget to the Board of Education. They think there needs to be more accountability on how it's spent."

Ullrich, who has attended many meetings this spring between the two boards, says she has noticed evaporation of some tension recently.

"They are trusting each other more and starting to work together," she said. "The Board of Education is realizing they have to be more open on how they spend money. There are still some trust issues to be worked out."

Former Commissioner Benjamin Brown said the relationship between the two boards is prone to tension because they are charged with different responsibilities yet must work together to manage millions.

Don Jansiewicz, political science professor at Carroll Community College, agreed.

"These are two boards who are trying to accomplish two different tasks that overlap in uncomfortable ways," Jansiewicz said. "But they have to work well together, and there has to be a compromise agreement. You can't continue in tense relationships -- you get exhausted or other issues will come along."

Hyde downplayed the tension, saying the process is normal whenever new commissioners are elected, as Robin Bartlett Frazier and Julia Walsh Gouge were last fall.

"These are decisions no one can make lightly," he said of school funding. "I can appreciate the need for this slate of commissioners to go back and examine the decisions of the previous board. Hopefully, these commissioners will move forward with good faith and understanding."

Parent Vicki Anzmann, the other co-chairwoman of Citizens for Schools, said she believes such understanding is forthcoming.

"There seems to be a meeting of the minds," Anzmann said. "It seems like the tension is over."

Added Dell, optimistically and diplomatically: "I'm just trying to stay neutral and not say too much."

Pub Date: 5/02/99

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