School board member criticizes colleagues

Krebs of Carroll panel says grand jury probe leaves her `ashamed'

October 14, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

In a highly unusual move, Carroll County school board member Susan W. Krebs criticized her colleagues at a meeting last night, saying in a speech that she was "embarrassed and ashamed" that a grand jury is examining school construction projects and also that she has testified about the school system.

The grand jury decided to look into the school system after reports of cost overruns and several million-dollar lawsuits related to construction projects.

Krebs said she testified about the school system, becoming the second county official to confirm an appearance before the grand jury.

In her speech, Krebs -- who spoke calmly and with an occasional smile -- said board members seem "more concerned about their pride than admitting to mistakes."

Her speech clearly was a surprise, as staff members had closed their notebooks and residents had their purses and belongings on their laps and were set to leave after a 3 1/2-hour meeting. As the board looked on stonily, Krebs said that her colleagues weren't living up to the same standards of character that they preach to schoolchildren in a new character education program adopted this year in the county.

"I suggest the board takes a good look at the character traits of the month, `responsibility and trustworthiness,' " she said. "This board needs to take the lead in regaining the trust and respect of the community, and we need to take the lead in setting a vision and measurable goals for our schools."

Krebs' relationship with the board's other four elected members has been strained for months, as she has repeatedly called them rubber stamps for school officials and labeled them unwilling to question the actions of staff or set a direction for the school system.

But, while the criticisms last night by Krebs were familiar, they have never been so pointed and personal.

"It is apparent to me that the policy of defend-and-ignore seems to be the mode we are in," Krebs said. "It is very painful for me to be painted in the same negative light as the rest of the board when I absolutely agree with the criticism. It is hard to be a team player when you don't believe the team is playing by the rules."

Krebs said that the board should be focusing more on student achievement, but that it also must hold its staff accountable and ask questions when problems arise. Instead, she said, the board "seems to spend a large portion of its time debating administrative trivia."

It is highly unusual for an elected official on a board to publicly rebuke colleagues because of the risk that the member will be ostracized by the group, said Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"It is not at all unusual for there to be division on an elected body, but for someone to stand up and say, `I'm totally out of step,' or, more likely, `You all are out of step, and I don't want anything to do with the rest of these folks' is very rare," said Norris, who studies local governments in Maryland.

He added that constituents might applaud the action, but only if it is clear that the person was morally or ethically unable to continue working with the group.

Krebs said in an interview that, as a compliant member of this board, she felt that she was not living up to her duties as a public official. She said that the intent of her speech was positive, and that she hopes the board reforms how it operates. She also said she hopes she can continue working with her colleagues.

Krebs added that she viewed the board as so inefficient that she had nothing to lose by giving the speech. She said her anger over an article Sunday in The Sun, in which board President Gary W. Bauer had trouble naming the board's accomplishments this year, was one reason she decided to speak up. "It's sad our board president can't think of a single accomplishment this year," Krebs said. "But the truth is, there is none."

Bauer refused to comment on Krebs' speech.

Board member Joseph D. Mish Jr. said, "The people in their naive simplicity are more taken in by a big lie than a small one." He refused to elaborate or offer further comment.

Members C. Scott Stone and Ann M. Ballard were not available for comment after the meeting. In the past, the other four board members have said that Krebs needs to learn to work as part of a team, that new members learn with time to trust and lean on staff.

Last night, Krebs offered no specifics on what she told the grand jury, noting instructions from the state's attorney's office that all matters remain confidential.

The grand jury is looking into the board of education's handling of construction projects, including Cranberry Station Elementary School, which opened last month more than $1 million over budget, and Francis Scott Key High School, where school officials built a sewage treatment plant without required state permits.

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