Anne Arundel County's school board -- stung by criticism that it privately approved raises for 30 high-level administrators, including Superintendent Eric J. Smith -- is considering a policy change that would require it to take a public vote before adjusting salaries for any group of employees.
The board's decision to grant 1 percent, midyear raises to Smith and his senior staff has been questioned in recent weeks by County Council members, who are reviewing a board request to appropriate nearly $1.9 million in school funds for cost-of-living raises for about 8,000 employees.
The board voted unanimously, with one member absent, in a closed session Dec. 3 to approve raises for the senior staff members and about 235 other central administration employees not represented by unions, board President Paul Rudolph and others said.
The state's Open Meetings Act says that decision-making bodies must openly deliberate matters of public policy, except in a few circumstances. The law allows such groups to discuss personnel matters in closed meetings, but not matters involving classes of employees.
Rudolph acknowledged yesterday that the vote, taken during a meeting that was closed to the public, might have been a misstep.
"We didn't do it upfront, and we will have to see that in the future we're more public with that," Rudolph said, adding that he plans to introduce a motion to create the new policy at a meeting next week.
The Anne Arundel school board's private vote follows several other closed-meeting controversies involving Baltimore-area school boards.
School boards in Baltimore and Howard counties have come under fire in the past two years for trying to skirt open-meetings laws to discuss matters ranging from the budget to superintendents' contracts.
James Browning, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause/Maryland, said that fiscal pressures might be prompting school boards to try to make more decisions out of the public's view.
"It suggests that the school boards are willing to violate the spirit of the law when the really tough decisions are being made," Browning said.
Rudolph and school officials say the board was not trying to hide the raises for Smith and others.
"We absolutely believe in the law," said board member Michael J. McNelly, who was not present when the vote was taken. "The Board of Education wants to be as open as possible."
School board members said they took up the pay raises in closed session because they had to exclude four employees with new assignments from getting them, and they wanted to protect their privacy.
After the closed morning meeting, the board directed Smith in open session to seek legislation from the county to allow the school system to appropriate money for the raises for "all employees of the school system." But it never explicitly stated that it had made a decision to include Smith and other nonunion employees based at the central office.
The board previously had voted in public meetings to grant raises to four employee unions that represent teachers, secretaries, principals and support staff.
According to Assistant Attorney General William R. Varga, a board can close a meeting to the public to discuss individual employees, but not a class of employees. "It's certainly a close call," Varga said after hearing an account of the Anne Arundel board's action.
Varga said he could not predict how the state Open Meetings Compliance Board, which he advises, would rule if asked to review the matter.
"It would have been better practice if they had limited the discussion concerning the specific, identifiable employees to the closed session, and then [handled] the general matter of compensation of senior staff in a public session," Varga said.
P. Tyson Bennett, the school board's legal counsel, said yesterday that he believed the board did not violate the open-meetings laws because its vote was to exclude four high-level administrators from receiving the raise. The board did not formally act on the salaries of the rest of the nonunion employees, he said his notes showed.
There was an assumption that the 1 percent raise "would be given across the board to everyone," Bennett said. "The discussion that day had to do with, `Is it going to apply to everybody, or less than everybody?'"
But at least three people at the meeting -- Rudolph, Smith and Assistant Superintendent Synthia Shilling -- said they recalled that the board's vote applied to the whole group of employees. Rudolph said that he hopes his proposal will prevent such confusion in the future.
The board president said he stands by his vote to grant raises to Smith and senior staff members, who he said were responsible for making about $6 million in budget cuts last school year. Those savings are making it possible for the board to give raises to all school employees. "To not also reward them, I feel, would be wrong," he said.
However, some County Council members are skeptical.