Board secretly discusses budget

Balto. County schools sessions do not violate Md. Open Meetings Act

`No business was conducted'

January 14, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County Board of Education divided into two groups last week to avoid the requirements of the Maryland Open Meetings Act and met secretly to discuss how the school system should cope with tight finances in the next budget.

"No business was conducted, there was no vote taken. It was just to sit down and get some ideas and give some direction," Donald L. Arnold, the board president, said yesterday.

While the separate meetings didn't violate the letter of the Open Meetings Act, some parents said the discussions skirted the spirit of the law, especially since board members talked about the use of public funds.

"Why wouldn't you want the taxpayers to hear how you're going to spend their money?" said Michael T. Franklin, president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County.

He said the secrecy could hurt the school system as it enlists the public's support while it tries to get as much funding as possible.

"To do these things behind closed doors, it leads to mistrust, to people thinking maybe you're not spending taxpayer money correctly," Franklin said.

Under Maryland's Open Meetings Act, the school board is required to give notice of its meetings - whether open or closed to the public - and take minutes of those meetings every time a quorum, or a majority, of its 13 members gathers. Violators face a $100 fine.

But to avoid having a quorum last week, Arnold said, eight board members, whom he wouldn't identify, split into two groups meeting at different times with Superintendent Joe A. Hairston and Barbara S. Burnopp, the school system's executive director of fiscal services.

Arnold said the board members gave Hairston a "general idea" about whether to trim the budget by cutting programs, what to do about salaries that the county doesn't want to raise and whether to include extra state education aid in the next budget. The superintendent introduces his proposed budget tonight.

Arnold said there would be plenty of public discussion of the budget but that the board needed to discuss these issues "without creating a lot of anxiety before any numbers are put together" because the school system faces unusually difficult financial circumstances.

He said it must try to formulate a budget without a target amount from new County Executive James T. Smith Jr. while facing a 22 percent increase in health care costs and negotiating contracts with four unions, including teachers and principals.

"We're dealing with a new county executive who doesn't want to be embarrassed, we don't have a number, we have $30 million in additional insurance costs and we're dealing with four unions at the same time," Arnold said.

Jack Schwartz, an assistant attorney general who is counsel to the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board, which hears complaints of violations, said a public body cannot violate the law if a quorum of members did not meet.

"If there's no quorum convened, then there's no `meeting.' And if there's no `meeting,' the Open Meetings Act does not apply," Schwartz said.

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said the board took advantage of a loophole in the Open Meetings Act.

He attacked the board's tact as "a gross violation of the spirit of the law" and a "dirty trick" but said there was little recourse.

"With open meetings, it's like a series of mirrors facing each other and receding endlessly," Browning said. "There will always be some secrecy."

Arnold said that he and Hairston decided to hold last Tuesday night's meetings only the day before.

He said they checked first with Carol Saffran-Brinks, the board's lawyer, who confirmed that the discussions wouldn't violate the Open Meetings Act.

Normally, school board meetings are advertised a day or two in advance, following the Open Meetings Act's requirement for "reasonable advance notice."

Arnold, who has been on the board six years, said this was the first time during his tenure that board members had met without giving public notice. Other board members also said that this was a first during their service.

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