Board plans probe talks

School officials criticized for silence about March report

`Consistent failures' cited

July 02, 2000|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

For the first time since the March release of a report highly critical of the school construction department, the Carroll County Board of Education will sit down Wednesday to discuss investigators' findings and ways to correct remaining problems that have mired the school system in costly lawsuits and a grand jury investigation for the last year.

One school board candidate has called for the elected members to take a vote on confidence in the superintendent, and another renewed her 2-month-old demand for his resignation.

An internal investigation of the Carroll County school system - conducted by a team of lawyers and former FBI agents hired by the school board in December - found "consistent failures" in the handling of school construction. Investigators noted that projects beyond those entangled in legal troubles during the past year were hampered by cost overruns and poor decision-making.

The 100-page report released in March described the school construction department as an organization beset by chaos, lacking experience and unprepared for the challenge of building schools rapidly in a developing county. A grand jury investigation that began in May 1999 as an inquiry into construction mismanagement expanded into a probe of possible kickback schemes and thefts and overall fiscal management of a school system that consumes half of the county's annual budget.

In the months since release of the report, which cost taxpayers $213,915, residents and PTA members have implored the school board to discuss problems documented by investigators and refocus attention on the system's 27,000 students.

Although school officials moved a banner reading "We're here for the children" into their public meeting room, they delayed discussion of the report even as a school board candidate, a school's PTA president and the president of the Carroll County Council of PTAs publicly addressed investigators' findings at Board of Education meetings.

In April, school board President C. Scott Stone said that he was trying to schedule a closed discussion of the report before or after a work session scheduled for the end of the month. But before the start of that meeting, Stone said he had not found time for the board to discuss the report. Instead, the board voted to go into closed session "to obtain legal advice on the Open Meetings Act, the Public Information Act and personnel items." Only board member Susan W. Krebs voted against the motion.

In May, school staff presented a "continuous improvement plan" to correct remaining deficiencies, offering 29 specific recommendations, from creating standardized bid documents and budgeting spreadsheets to hiring an internal schools auditor and reducing the workload of a key administrator.

The school board has not discussed that plan.

Board candidate Lisa Breslin has asked the board to take up the one topic that has been up in the air for three months - personnel - and take a vote of confidence in the superintendent.

"Since the results of the Miles and Stockbridge investigation were released, the term `personnel changes' has moved from a politically correct term to a full-blown euphemism for the fate of at least three people," Breslin wrote in a letter to the editor, referring to Superintendent William H. Hyde, Assistant Superintendent Vernon F. Smith Jr. and Lester Surber. Surber oversaw the construction department from 1987 to 1997 and has since been demoted to safety assistant in the plant operations department.

"It's time for board members to cut through the rhetoric," Breslin wrote. "Before the July 5th meeting, the board needs to have some tough discussions [in closed session] about personnel - most importantly, about Mr. Hyde's future."

Breslin said she chose to write the letter after she learned that Wednesday's agenda will not include time for public comment.

Her request is not likely to be met.

Stone said that state law prohibits the school board from discussing personnel issues - including their confidence in the superintendent's leadership - in public. Board candidate Susan Holt has publicly called for the firings or resignations of Hyde and Smith, as well as the resignations of any school board members unwilling to dismiss the superintendent.

"Being that their response to the findings is long overdue, I hope the board members used this time to get a better understanding of the regulations and procedures that were violated," she said.

Holt also asked Stone to apologize to the community "for failing to provide sufficient oversight. The board's rubber-stamping contributed to the millions of dollars that have been wasted."

Board candidate Thomas G. Hiltz said he does not plan to make any public statements, but said he hopes to hear "candid, open, meaningful and unrehearsed conversation between the board and administration. I hope that by the end of the work session the board has demonstrated diligence and oversight ... and really embraced a plan that will prevent these problems from occurring again."

The board's work session is scheduled for 2 p.m. in the public meeting room of the Board of Education building on North Court Street.

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