School board at odds on audit

Members discuss scope, using external firm to look at system staff

Some favor `downsized approach'

Cost becomes key issue

meanwhile, chief entreats governor to restore grant

February 19, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County school board discussed yesterday limiting or abandoning a potentially costly third-party audit of the school system, a proposal that had been made to quell public perception that top administrators are overpaid.

The board also postponed until Wednesday a vote on Superintendent Eric J. Smith's recommended $672 million operating budget for the next fiscal year after members said they needed more time to review the school system's finances.

The performance audit was proposed earlier this month by board member Konrad M. Wayson, who said he wanted to be able to answer accusations that the school system's administration is top-heavy.

Wayson and other board members hoped to analyze the effectiveness of Smith and several hundred other central office employees.

The superintendent has said that he welcomes an audit.

Although the school board voted to establish the scope of a potential audit by next month, several members had varying opinions about how much should be spent on it and whether it should be performed internally or by an outside consultant.

Board President Paul G. Rudolph said he plans to vote against any third-party audit because of the expense, estimated at between $250,000 and $500,000, and the county's tight fiscal situation.

"It seems to be an awfully costly item ... and we don't have any money," Rudolph said after the meeting, adding that he would prefer that school officials perform the audit themselves.

Wayson, however, contended that a self-audit would not have the same credibility as an external one.

Board member Eugene Peterson said he was in favor of a "downsized approach" to the audit because the school board and County Council have received copious information recently from Smith about the organization of central office personnel and their salaries.

Peterson said he hoped to limit the scope and cost of the audit because so much information already was made available.

Another board member, Michael J. McNelly, said he disagreed with the purpose of the audit, which is not specifically aimed at cost-cutting.

McNelly said the school board might find itself in the position of having ordered a $500,000 audit that did not yield even that amount in savings.

Despite the differences in opinion, board members denied that the board was backing down from a commitment to hold the system's officials accountable to the public.

"I don't think it's losing steam," McNelly said of the proposal. "We just don't want to put the cart before the horse. We want to determine the scope of the audit."

Wayson said he believes his call for an audit has prompted meaningful discussion and self-examination by school officials.

"Already, it's accomplished some of the goals that we're looking for," he said.

Also yesterday, Smith wrote a letter to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., trying to recover a $1 million-a-year state grant to Annapolis schools cut by the governor from his budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The Challenge Grant has been given for the past three years to 12 schools in the state capital and was to have continued through 2006.

The grant has funded several initiatives - summer programs; extra teachers to reduce class sizes and provide math and reading remediation; and tutoring, psychological and counseling services for students and parents.

In his letter, Smith said Annapolis schools have made academic gains and seen a drop in disciplinary actions because of the state assistance.

"Absent the Annapolis Challenge Grant, local resources are not available to support these worthy efforts and our progress will not be sustained," Smith wrote.

School officials say the school system will not be able to afford to keep 17 grant-funded staff positions - including reading teachers, behavior intervention specialists and a psychologist - at the schools.

Once grant money runs out, those hired under the grant will be given the opportunity to fill vacancies elsewhere in the school system.

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