Report on school woes in Carroll to be released

Investigation focused on problems with construction projects

March 26, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

On what could be a day of vindication -- or humiliation -- for the Carroll County school system, investigators will release tomorrow a lengthy report on several botched construction projects that landed the school system in legal turmoil last year.

Richard D. Bennett, an attorney hired by the school system in December to lead the investigation, has pored over documents and conducted hundreds of interviews.

Bennett has refused to detail contents of the report before its release. But, in a possible indication of its seriousness, he has sealed about 10 percent of his findings and is passing them directly to the county state's attorney.

The report, and how it is received by county residents, could dictate the direction of the system in coming months, especially how quickly school officials can put their nagging legal problems behind them.

When the school board hired Bennett's team -- as of mid-March, its work had cost the system $173,000 -- the board promised a swift revelation of facts that, it hoped, would demonstrate that blunders were the result of mistakes, not incompetence.

Two projects -- Cranberry Station Elementary and a wastewater treatment facility at Francis Scott Key High -- led to lawsuits last year. In May, a county grand jury began an investigation into how the school construction staff managed those projects and into whether management problems existed elsewhere in the system.

Donald R. Jansiewicz, a political science professor at Carroll Community College who follows local government, said the most critical point will come when the grand jury completes its investigation.

That 23-member panel, whose term has been extended indefinitely, can decide to hand down indictments, issue a report that may or may not be made public, or take no action at all.

Jansiewicz stressed that the public is unlikely to see the more serious findings tomorrow in Bennett's report, which, he said, would be part of the sealed portion.

"What they will probably see is that `We have a problem here and it is easily correctable, and there is this other problem that is really not a problem,' " Jansiewicz said. He added that the public report could include suggestions for procedural reforms.

He said the school board might have to decide whether any individuals should be held accountable in light of Bennett's findings.

"If there is something criminal, the legal system will handle it," Jansiewicz said. "If there have been inappropriate things, technically legal but of questionable logic, the school board may make efforts to do some reorganizing, some procedural changes, or even some personnel changes."

School board President C. Scott Stone, the designated spokesman for the school system on issues relating to Bennett's report, was unavailable for comment. He said this month that he did not believe Bennett's team had found anything criminal in its investigation but that the decision to pass portions of the report to the state's attorney was an indication that there might have been civil wrongdoing in the school system.

The five-member school board has reviewed a draft of the report.

Member Susan W. Krebs would not discuss its contents, but said: "The board will need to ensure significant personnel changes in order to regain the public's trust."

Other board members did not return phone calls.

James W. Ancel, the Towson contractor originally hired to build Cranberry Station, filed a $45 million defamation lawsuit alleging that top-level school officials -- Superintendent William H. Hyde, Assistant Superintendent Vernon F. Smith Jr. and school board attorney Louis J. Kozlakowski -- were wrong to claim that his contract was terminated because he wasn't going to finish the work on time.

The sides settled in December, with the school system agreeing to pay Ancel $60,000. But the school system's treatment of Ancel -- as well as its handling of the project, which was completed last fall more than $1 million over budget -- is being scrutinized by the grand jury and is expected to play a substantial role in Bennett's report.

At Francis Scott Key High, the school system built an $800,000 sewage treatment plant without the required construction and environmental permits from the state. The county has taken over the project to try to reapply for the proper permits, even as a pending lawsuit could force the plant to be dismantled.

Another lawsuit was sparked last year at Key High when school officials, in creating a new bus turnaround and 200-car parking lot, paved over a neighbor's driveway.

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