Council, school board still sparring

Recent conflicts include superintendent search in Baltimore County

January 23, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

By now, the verbal jabs between the Baltimore County Council and the Board of Education are old hat.

During the past decade, the two bodies -- one elected, the other appointed by the governor -- have bickered mostly about money. But arguments also have erupted over retirement benefits for teachers and irregularities in contract bidding.

Last week, it happened again. The council asked the board to conduct a less-secretive search for a superintendent of schools. Board members replied that they are not about to change the rules in the middle of the game.

Past battles have been fueled by the strong personalities of those involved -- former superintendents Robert Y. Dubel and Stuart Berger, for example. Economics also have played a role, especially in the early 1990s, a time of recession and government cutbacks.

But neither side seems to take the verbal swipes too seriously.

"I never really felt that there was bad blood between us. At least I didn't perceive it that way," said Dunbar Brooks, who served two five-year terms as school board president beginning in 1989. "There has always been reasonable rapport."

"There is always going to be some tension because our job is to advocate for the student, and their job is to balance the fiscal needs of the whole county," said school board member Sanford V. Teplitzky, who has served since 1993. "But I don't think that's truly bad. Some exchange of view is important."

The exchanges can become testy, though, as shown by the recent conflict over the superintendent search and another last month over a feared year 2000 problem in the school system's computers.

Last week, council members took a swipe at the school board with a resolution asking the board to open its search to replace Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione, who will retire in June, so that parents and teachers could interview or at least meet finalists.

The school board members don't want to alter the search process for fear of scaring off prospective candidates.

Last month, school officials said their payroll system might not be able to compute the year 2000, a problem that could have delayed the paychecks of thousands of teachers.

The school board agreed to pay an Owings Mills company $650,000 to set up an emergency backup system. County officials, concerned about the expense, blamed school officials for waiting until the last minute to find a remedy. School officials said they would cover the expense by freezing some administrative job openings.

Seeking an agent of change

School board members hint that in looking for a new superintendent, they are seeking an agent of change, words the board used to describe Berger, who upset politicians and residents with such decisions as the transfer of many special education students to regular schools.

It's no secret that the relationship between school officials and county politicians is contentious, said County Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican. He doesn't expect the distrust to ease soon.

"Of all the issues I hear people talk about, this one stays on the agenda," he said. "Something always stirs the fire."

At the root of the friction between the two bodies is a governmental organization that forces school officials to be autonomous yet dependent.

Although school board members, who are appointed by the governor, take an oath to do what's best for students, they have little power to secure funds to meet educational goals. The County Council and county executive have the final say on the schools' budget, and school board members and superintendents are leery of upsetting county officials for fear of fiscal repercussions.

In 1995, Berger, whose contract was bought out by school officials for $300,000 that year, learned that lesson the hard way.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and the council approved $4.4 million in cuts -- the most in approximately two decades -- in school employee benefits and administration.

The move was seen as an attack on Berger, whose brusque management style frustrated county officials.

A contentious history

Long before that, relations between the council and the school board had begun to sour.

In 1994, Ruppersberger asked Robin Churchill, an accountant in the county auditor's office, to report directly to him on how the school system was spending its money. Churchill is now the schools' chief financial officer.

Earlier that year, Roger B. Hayden, then county executive, proposed changing state law to force school officials to give him quick answers to his budget questions. The proposal never became law.

In 1993, the two sides battled about $4.6 million owed to teachers who took early retirements. Ruppersberger, council chairman at the time, stunned school officials when he told them he was not satisfied with their responses to council questions regarding the payout.

Perhaps the biggest tussle in recent years erupted in 1996, when a faulty heating and ventilation system at Deer Park Elementary School forced an emergency closing of the school.

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