Extending the school inquiry

Carroll County: Grand jury's year has yet to produce results in construction investigation.

April 20, 2000

THE Carroll County state's attorney has widened the grand jury's investigation of possible financial misconduct by the Board of Education and the county school system.

The question arises whether there is substantial basis for criminal indictment from this prolonged inquiry, or whether it simply puts more pressure on the discredited school system to clean up its act.

Not that the revelations of missteps and lack of accounting in the construction program haven't stirred public mistrust in the administration and its elected overseers. Not that top personnel changes aren't overdue. Not that administrative policies and processes don't need to be tightened.

But the county grand jury under the direction of State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes has been looking into the school construction morass for nearly a year now. It has heard from various people involved with county finance and school construction. And it hasn't come up with one indictment, one report, one finding.

The 23-person grand jury's original six-month term was extended indefinitely last fall at the request of Mr. Barnes, who called school board members "arrogant" and "indifferent" in dealing with obvious problems.

The school board then hired a respected outside law firm to investigate the construction program. That 100-page report was released last month. The investigators, including former FBI agents, said they found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, no internal fraud or embezzlement.

The law team did turn over 10 pages of sealed findings to Mr. Barnes for possible use. If there was no suggestion of criminal conduct found in the three-month study, what "sensitive matters," as the lawyers put it, were so important for the grand jury to consider?

The third-hand information from school employees that Mr. Barnes has heard may indeed provide grounds for expanding the inquiry. But so far, there has been more rhetoric than results from this prolonged probe.

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