School board session queried

Critics say panel might have violated Open Meetings Act

April 29, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County school board might have violated the state Open Meetings Act when members met behind closed doors last week to discuss Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's sweeping administrative restructuring proposal.

During a two-hour executive session Tuesday night, Hairston briefed the board on his plan to create a new management structure for 24 top administrators, a move that would concentrate authority in the superintendent's office.

But that briefing, said William R. Varga, an assistant attorney general for the state, probably should have been held in public.

"If they were talking about the general requirements of an office, the management structure or a policy decision in terms of implementation of that structure, it is more questionable whether it constitutes a personnel action under the act," Varga said. "The act establishes a policy in favor of open meetings. Any exception under the act is to be narrowly construed."

The open-meetings law allows officials to go behind closed doors to discuss personnel issues, which was the reason given by the board for Tuesday night's executive session. But such issues are restricted to personnel actions, compensation and performance evaluations, according to law.

Board member John A. Hayden, a lawyer, said he warned the board several times that it was touching on issues that should not be discussed in private, including new positions and job descriptions. "There were a couple of times when we started to stray and I pointed out that we had to focus on the personnel parts," Hayden said.

Board member James R. Sasiadek, a Baltimore City school system administrator, also confirmed that discussions pertaining to "new titles" and "job responsibilities" took place during the closed meeting.

Charles A. Herndon, schools spokesman, defended the closed meeting. "We did consider the entirety of the meeting to be a personnel issue. We were discussing individual employees within the context of the reorganization," he said.

Board President Donald L. Arnold could not be reached for comment Friday.

Hayden declined to speculate on whether the board violated the law. "I can't fault the superintendent for having to [brief the board] in order to have the personnel part make any sense," he said.

The board approved the proposal, 8-0, with Hayden abstaining. He said he chose not to vote because he didn't have enough time to review the last of three management studies on which the restructuring plan was based. Board members received the 3-inch-thick report by MGT of America, a Tallahassee, Fla., consulting firm, about two hours before they voted.

Since that meeting, several board members have expressed regret that they had to approve the reshuffling so quickly. Arnold has said the board had to act because administrators facing pay cuts must be notified by May 1.

The suddenness of the vote and the report's release upset many parents and community groups. Still, most parents say they are pleased with what they have seen of the plan. Some say it might help correct a bureaucracy that had grown stale and fostered inequities.

"I think this reorganization could mean that for the first time what happens on the east side happens on the west side and in the north and in the south," said Ella White Campbell, a Randallstown activist who has complained for years about the lack of computers, textbooks and experienced teachers in Northwest Area schools.

"I am very much in favor of more centralization and Dr. Hairston's statement that he wants one school system and not a system of schools; I don't disagree with that," said Mary Pat Kahle, a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee for Special Education. "I'm willing to wait and see if the people they are putting in those new positions will work out."

Administrators had been nervously awaiting the release of Hairston's plan for months. On Tuesday, nine of the system's top administrators were moved to new positions.

Among them were Donald I. Mohler, the Northeast Area superintendent, who becomes an executive director for student support. Phyllis Bailey, who has run the system's curriculum department since 1996, was named an executive director for special programs for kindergarten through 12th grade.

School principals and teachers also were worried about Hairston's reorganization plan. At a meeting Thursday of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, teachers asked union President Mark Beytin if Hairston could eventually reassign principals. Those transfers appear to be forthcoming, Beytin said.

The restructuring approved Tuesday is the first in a four-phase strategy that Hairston hopes will boost student achievement. The remaining phases will be implemented in the summer.

Parents said the reorganization signals an end to old ways and a chance to start anew.

"It was a system that was set up for corruption and set up to perpetuate corruption," said Kahle, of the Citizens Advisory Committee. "This reorganization presents better checks and balances. ... It could be a really good thing."

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