Reter's offer to testify not 1st attack

Former comptroller has spoken against school board's budget

October 28, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

When James E. Reter landed in Korea in 1953, he learned that the Army needed someone to straighten out the finances at the officers club in Pusan. The 22-year-old corporal from Glyndon, who had a knack for numbers, volunteered.

He put down his rifle, picked up a pencil and discovered that the accounting books were "all screwed up," he recalled.

For Reter, it was the beginning of a long, unassuming career balancing the columns of expense and revenue as a tax accountant, auditor and later comptroller for the Carroll County Board of Education.

But this week Reter pushed himself into the spotlight, offering to testify before the Carroll County grand jury. He claims that the school board "stonewalled" efforts to have a performance audit and that Superintendent William H. Hyde once tried to "blackmail" him.

The 23-member jury has been looking into the school system and its oversight of several troubled construction projects.

It is not the first time Reter has taken a swing at the school system. The 68-year-old Westminster resident is a familiar figure during school budget hearings, stepping up to the microphone each season to criticize board members for wasting money and for failing to demand accountability from school administrators.

His approach to education has been criticized as "cheap," more concerned with saving money than educating children. During his unsuccessful bid for the school board last year, Reter failed to win the endorsement of the school employees' union. Union leaders said Reter had other agendas than education.

Not so, Reter says.

"Just because I'm interested in numbers doesn't mean I'm not interested in academics. You can save money and have more programs for the children," said Reter, who is president of the Carroll County Taxpayers Association, a group dedicated to cutting out wasteful spending in government.

"In doing tax returns, you see the people who are paying the money. I've had people sit down and cry when I tell them how much money they owe and they don't have it. I really feel people in government need to spend taxpayers' money more carefully than they spend their own."

In a letter to the Carroll state's attorney's office, Reter echoed his earlier concerns about school finances, including the need for a performance audit of the entire system.

More unusual, however, was Reter's accusation that Hyde tried to "blackmail" him "into silence" by threatening to publicize notes Reter received from a woman he was having an affair with while he was married.

Reter said he received the notes from a co-worker in 1987, while he was comptroller for the school system. He accidentally left the notes in his office when he retired in 1993.

Three years later, Reter learned of his mistake when Hyde, who was assistant superintendent of administration at the time, told him that he had found the notes. Reter said Hyde then threatened to release the correspondence to the press.

Although Reter had gotten a divorce and married the co-worker by that time, he said he worried that the notes would embarrass his wife and family. He has since divorced the co-worker.

Reter wrote a letter to Hyde, requesting the return of the letters. Hyde returned them with a note denying any wrongdoing.

A review of the incident by the state's attorney's office in 1996, at Reter's request, found that Hyde had done nothing illegal.

Reter has also accused Hyde of forcing him out of his position as comptroller for the school system. Reter said Hyde overloaded him with work after he raised questions about retirement packages for superintendents.

Hyde would not comment on any of Reter's allegations, saying that he does not want to discuss any matter that would go before the grand jury.

School Board President Gary W. Bauer said he is not bothered by Reter's offer to testify before the grand jury.

"If Jim feels like he wants to talk that's his call. He's a citizen, and he has every right if they want to talk to them," Bauer said.

Bauer won the support of Reter in 1994, when he first ran for school board. Reter went door to door for his fellow Republican Party member, taken by Bauer's promise to make the school system accountable.

But Reter said his enthusiasm for Bauer was short-lived.

"We joked that they must have given him something funny to drink. He forgot what he said during the campaign," Reter said.

Bauer said he remembered his promises, but he never discovered any of the financial problems Reter suspected were there.

"As I got on the board I watched what went on. I was asking questions, but I never saw the concerns that he saw," Bauer said. "I pay taxes, too. I understand the situation of the county. Until we build our economic base, the only place we can get revenue is through fees and taxes."

Reter's bottom-line philosophy was formed by years working in business and accounting. After his discharge from the Army, he spent several years working in his father's grocery store in Baltimore County while earning a degree in economics from Western Maryland College. Before joining the Carroll school system, he was a tax accountant and chief auditor for the State Department of Education.

Such number-crunching positions often kept him in the background, but he has emerged as a conservative voice in the county. He has been active in county politics -- his sister is Republican Del. Nancy R. Stocksdale -- as president of the county Republican Club. Although his first bid for school board was unsuccessful, Reter said he might consider another run.

"People ask me about that all the time. I wouldn't rule it out."

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