Carroll school board probed

County grand jury investigates several construction projects

September 30, 1999|By David L. Greene and John Murphy | David L. Greene and John Murphy,SUN STAFF

In a rare exercise of its investigative powers, a Carroll County grand jury is conducting a broad inquiry into the Board of Education, questioning its oversight of several school construction projects, two of which are embroiled in lawsuits.

The 23-member jury has heard testimony from at least one county official, Steven D. Powell, the county's director of management and budget.

Powell said he appeared twice before the grand jury and answered questions about the school system.

He said he was subpoenaed once in July and a second time in August. Each session with the grand jury lasted several hours.

Powell declined to comment on his testimony, saying only that the questions were wide-ranging. He also declined to say whether he had handed over any budget materials or paperwork to the grand jury.

He said he did not know whether he would be called to testify again.

"I've done nothing wrong," said Ann M. Ballard, board vice president. She said she was "amazed" that the grand jury is investigating the five-member panel, all of whom are elected officials.

Gary W. Bauer, president of the board, said he did not believe members had been asked so far to participate in the inquiry and that the board had not discussed it.

"I know nothing about it," Bauer said. "If there is a grand jury investigation, no one has contacted us."

Bauer invited the grand jury to investigate anything they wish, adding that most of what the board has done with theconstruction issues has been reported in the media.

According to a source close to the inquiry, jurors are looking into the Board of Education's handling of a number of issues. Among them:

The construction of Cranberry Station Elementary. The new elementary school in Westminster opened last month more than $1 million over budget.

A disagreement with the school's original contractor, James W. Ancel, has led to a $45 million defamation lawsuit against top-level school officials.

The building of a wastewater treatment plant at Francis Scott Key High School without the required state environmental and construction permits. The school system might be forced to dismantle the $800,000 plant if a lawsuit filed by a neighbor is successful.

The accidental destruction of a driveway owned by a young couple who live behind Francis Scott Key. Workers accidentally paved it over in creating a school bus turnaround and 200-car parking lot.

The family is suing for $1 million.

Unexpected costs for a planned second high school in Westminster. The new high school was supposed to be built adjacent to Cranberry Elementary, but until this summer the site had never been examined.

When it was, the school board learned that the excavation and rock removal would add $5.6 million to the school's cost. The county and school system are searching for another site. Completion of that school might be delayed by a year, until 2003.

The overall leadership style of the board and what it does to hold administrators and staff accountable. One issue in this part of the inquiry is the board's initial reluctance to have an independent examination of the Cranberry Station Elementary project.

In contrast to most court proceedings, the actions of grand juries are not conducted in public.

State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes, who oversees the county's grand jury, said that by law he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of such a case.

The current grand jury was impaneled May 1 for a term of six months, ending Oct. 31. If necessary, the grand jury's term can be extended by the state's attorney petitioning the court.

A grand jury typically looks into criminal activity and is responsible for handing up indictments. But the panels, if their members choose, also have the authority to explore other issues in the community -- including probes into possible abuses by public officials.

"It's unusual. Normally, if you want to look into a problem that's not criminal, you use the County Council or a state committee," said Abraham A. Dash, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who specializes in criminal procedure.

"Civic problems are typically left up to elected officials."

Still, grand juries do have the power to look into problems if they choose, he said.

In recent years, a 1995 Baltimore City grand jury conducted a four-month study of school crime and a 1997 Howard County panel criticized the management of the county detention center.

Even in these civic investigations, a grand jury has the power to create criminal indictments, issue a report on its findings or take no action.

Citing the Cranberry Station Elementary construction project, Ballard said the board does not "micromanage" and that it took advice from staff at various stages of the project. She mentioned specifically the board's vote to terminate Ancel's contract at Cranberry.

"We got a recommendation from staff, looked at it and voted on it," Ballard said.

"We could go back and investigate every decision the county commissioners made.

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