County council assails top school officials

Members voice concerns that vacancies unfilled as building plans go forward

May 19, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County Council hammered the county's top school officials yesterday for allowing key vacancies to stay open for months as the county plans to spend millions on school construction projects.

"It does not appear that the management you have in place inspires a lot of confidence," Council Chairman Kevin B. Kamenetz told Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione and his top aides at a council briefing on the school's $829 million budget.

Kamenetz and other council members expressed concerns that the school system plans to spend $159 million on renovation projects next year and that Marchione has yet to fill the two positions de- signed to make sure the money is properly spent.

Gene L. Neff retired as chief schools engineer in April, and John M. Markowski resigned as chief financial officer in January.

"We need somebody working for the schools who can review these contracts to make sure we're getting a good deal, and I'm not sure we have that person right now," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat.

Marchione told council members that he is in the process of filling both positions and that the process for awarding school construction contracts and preventing cost overruns has been tightened.

"Based on the experiences of the past few years, we've done very well," he told the council.

School board officials said this month the board's building committee -- which must approve change orders that increase the price of contracts -- will begin meeting more frequently to crack down on change-order requests and that the board and its attorney are developing new policies to better oversee change orders.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's proposed $1.7 billion budget calls for spending $156 million to repair and renovate 49 elementary schools next year as the first step in a massive eight- to 10-year capital improvement plan for the schools.

A consultant's study released last month found that $317 million will be needed to repair the county's middle schools, high schools and special education centers. A previous survey reported that the price tag for repairing the elementary schools would be $213 million.

More than 80 percent of the county's schools were built before 1970, and, until recently, building maintenance was often ignored or reduced when budgets were tight, school officials said.

"We're allocating so much money for these school projects, and they don't have anybody to head the department that's overseeing it," Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, said after the session.

Council members also sharply criticized Marchione's staff for failing to respond to questions from their auditor as part of the review process.

"My recommendation is that if they don't cooperate and give us the information we need, we just make the cuts in those areas," Moxley told council members.

Michael Goodhughes, Marchione's budget chief, said he did his best to respond to the auditor's questions, providing answers to roughly "80 percent" of the 200 questions that were asked.

"Believe me, there was no intention to avoid responding," Goodhughes said.

Pub Date: 5/19/99

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