Plenty of blame for school fiascos

Comment

April 23, 2000|By MIKE BURNS

Everybody's telling stories out of school these days.

They've been talking to State's Attorney Jerry Barnes. They're talking to the grand jury. They've been talking to the school board s team of lawyer-investigators. They're talking to the courts.

The subject is anything and everything that is wrong with Carroll County's school fiscal and construction systems.

According to Mr. Barnes, school employees are coming out of the woodwork to talk about all sorts of possible misdeeds within the finance/construction area of the county's education system.

They've apparently been emboldened by the recent release of a highly critical report from the outside law firm that the Board of Education hired to look into recent construction problems.

That 100-page report by the respected Baltimore law firm of Miles & Stockbridge found all manner of improper decisions, costly errors and attitudes, ignored policies and apparent contractor favoritism.

Further evidence of missteps was seen in court cases charging defamation by school officials and unauthorized use of private property. And by state administrative reprimand for failure to obtain required permits.

It's funny that these tales never got to the five people elected by the public to oversee the workings of the school system. Or to the three county commissioners who oversee the system's $180 million annual budget, by far the biggest in the county.

At least, the reports apparently didn't get to these elected officials early enough for them to take action to head off the problems. Or if the stories did reach the proper ears in timely fashion, there's no evidence to show that the informed authorities took prompt remedial steps.

That's one of the most disappointing aspects of the entire fiasco. The county commissioner who served as liaison to the school board for years. Donald Dell, didn't sound the alarm. Nor did the four school board members who have been on the job for multiple terms.

Susan Krebs was first elected to the board 18 months ago and immediately started criticizing board silence and inaction in the face of serious problems. She was remonstrated by other board members for not being a team player and for not trusting the school administration.

The sad results of trusting this school administration and hushing up problems are now too obvious.

If the public's overseers of the school system had been more willing to challenge, to think independently, to break with the close clubby character of the school board, they would have been far more likely to hear stories earlier about the potential problems.

If the members had been more open to confidential public criticism, if people felt the board would not just turn it over to the very employees who were the targets of the criticism, some of these problems likely could have been blunted or resolved early on.

If the board had been more active and independent, some of the diffident arrogance exhibited by school administrators in their construction decisions could have been headed off and would not have led to costly legal and regulatory wrangling. The same is true for Commissioner Dell.

The school board has been mostly reactive through the entire series of construction gaffes.

It was forced by the county commissioners (albeit late in the game) to agree to a systemwide performance audit, then dragged its heels in achieving that agreement.

The board sat by as a county grand jury was empanelled to look into the construction program, only voting to hire the outside lawyers to conduct an internal investigation after the grand jury's term was indefinitely extended last fall.

When the investigation report was ready for presentation, the school board was quick to see that top administrators involved in the criticized decisions were allowed to review and amend the report that was ultimately released to the public.

Taking action on the investigation report findings has been another hard step for the school board to take. Members declined to discuss the findings. They wanted to leave it up to the same top administrators to draft and direct the action plan on construction program changes.

Only under withering public criticism did Superintendent Willam Hyde turn over responsibility for creation of the action plan to a subordinate one without any construction management experience.

While procedural changes may be implemented, it's fairly certain that the action plan won't produce any action as far as punishing personnel responsible for the decisions that have adversely affected the school construction program.

And there have been avoidable bad decisions made by administrators.

Those who tried to circumvent the established contract bidding and award procedures, those who defamed contractors, those who ignored clear private property rights and state environmental laws, those who deliberately ignored expert advice on construction timetables they deserve to be penalized for their conduct.

So do the administrators who failed to accurately and timely inform the board of problems and potential problems.

And those elected officials who failed to supervise the supervisors well, their penalty must wait until the next elections.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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