Panels agree to conduct schools audit

Commissioners, school board end 4-month stand-off

A source of tension

Entire system included, from administration to construction

July 15, 1999|By John Murphy and David L. Greene | John Murphy and David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

Ending a four-month tug of war between the Carroll Board of Education and the county commissioners over how to review management of the school system, the two panels agreed yesterday to conduct a full performance audit of all school departments.

Under the agreement, county government and schools staff will be equal partners in the effort, sharing the responsibility of developing guidelines for the audit and selecting an auditing firm to conduct it.

That firm will review the performance of all school operations -- from administration to school construction to purchasing -- over three years.

"I think the goal is for everyone to know what is being done, how it is being done and whether money is being spent wisely," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.

The performance audit has been a source of tension between the two boards since April, when commissioners demanded one to answer questions surrounding school officials' management of the agency's construction program, including Cranberry Station Elementary School, which is due to open in August $1.4 million over budget.

When the school board resisted, the commissioners voted to withhold $1 million from the school budget until it agreed to the audit.

Despite yesterday's agreement, the $1 million would not be released until the audit is under way. That could take months.

"Once the audit has started, we'll look into that," Gouge said after the meeting.

Although relations between the boards have been strained in recent months, school officials and the commissioners appeared determined to reach a civil resolution of their differences.

Superintendent William H. Hyde said he welcomed the audit, as he has welcomed past reviews of school system performance.

"We view it as a tremendous opportunity," he said. "We have gained a lot by having them done."

But the boards disagreed over the scope of the audit. Gouge asked that members of the public -- residents and business owners -- be given an opportunity to suggest areas for school system improvement.

School board member C. Scott Stone cautioned that some residents might have a political agenda.

"There are a lot of axes to grind in this county," Stone said. "And this is a good opportunity for ax grinding if we're not careful."

The audit team, to consist of five members from the school administration and five members from county government, will report to both boards when they meet again at 2: 30 p.m. Aug. 11.

In other business yesterday, the two boards were briefed on a feasibility study done for a new Westminster high school adjacent to Cranberry Station Elementary School.

Members of both boards seemed skeptical about the proposed site. Because the area is hilly -- a large amount of digging would be necessary to prepare for construction -- building the high school there could cost the county up to $5 million more than expected. Initial estimates for the project were just under $30 million. The school is slated to open in 2003.

"We're building a beautiful new high school and we're going to have it sitting in a hole," said school board member Susan Krebs. "Spending $30-35 million on a project that is going to be less than satisfactory is a major concern. I think we should look for a new site."

Among other concerns were that Center Street would become gridlocked with traffic from parents dropping off and picking up students; that students would have to walk too far from the parking lot to get to the athletic stadium; and that because the campus would straddle Center Street, students would decide to walk across the road, though a tunnel under the road is planned.

Architect Gary K. Blanton of SWH Group Inc. presented an alternative option that would have the school entrance on Gorsuch Road instead of Center Street.

But the boards are seriously considering moving the project to another site. They have not disclosed what other locations they are considering.

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