UMBC, public schools at odds

Accounting dispute could imperil training program for math, science teachers

System withholds $649,000 billed

Sides blame, aim to solve procedural differences

March 21, 2004|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

An innovative effort to train math and science teachers for work in low-performing Baltimore County schools is threatened by a dispute over the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's accounting of program expenses.

After a school system auditor listed "concerns" about the university's documentation for overtime, travel spending and other expenses, UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III told Superintendent Joe A. Hairston that he wanted to end the partnership. UMBC says the problem stems simply from the different accounting rules it follows.

Both sides now say they are trying to resolve the dispute, but they acknowledge obstacles remain in reconciling their different accounting procedures. Some parents are worried that the $13 million program's promise has been jeopardized by bureaucratic infighting.

"This is definitely a need. If we have the money, we should spend it," said Donya Douglas, an Owings Mills parent and National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineer who has pushed for improving the math and science instruction received by minority students.

The dispute, which dates to October, was outlined in documents obtained by The Sun and was confirmed by UMBC and school system officials.

Baltimore County schools have withheld paying UMBC almost $649,000 that the university has billed. The money comes from the initial grant of a planned five-year National Science Foundation award.

Meanwhile, the university has been trying to find lost receipts for about $17,000 in computer hardware and software purchases.

"I can't speak to the specific payments, but I can tell you it's our policy -- our standard operating procedure -- that we need supporting documentation before reimbursement," said Charles A. Herndon, a school system spokesman. Herndon said he was the only school official permitted to speak about the subject.

Diane Lee, UMBC vice provost for undergraduate and professional education, blamed the disagreement on differences between the university's and county schools' accounting rules, and on growing pains stemming from the university's adoption of new financial software.

She said the university has worked with county auditors to explain its accounting procedures. If the county school system had its way, Lee said, "We would have to come up with an almost entirely different accounting system." The university won't do that, she said.

Lee expressed confidence, however, that the sides could resolve the disagreement. "You know there are going to be some bumps. You know you're going to have to work out differences," she said.

Lee added that the university has been gathering lost receipts from vendors -- it has about 80 percent of them, she said -- and is reviewing records to account for all billings.

The program is one of 36 nationwide to train math and science teachers for work in low-performing schools. It has placed 20 interns in county schools, UMBC officials said. The interns work in such schools as Hebbville Elementary and Southwest Academy, which have had problems recruiting and retaining qualified teachers.

Diane Spresser, senior program coordinator for the science foundation's math and science program, said that a partnership in Oakland, Calif., was the only one to end, last fall.

"Sometimes partners grouse among themselves about things, but as a general rule they are able to resolve it within themselves," Spresser said. She said the foundation wasn't aware of any accounting dispute between the Baltimore County schools and UMBC.

The effort here is led by Deputy Superintendent Christine M. Johns for the school system and John Lee for UMBC. Neither returned phone calls seeking comment.

In the county schools, math test scores consistently show minority students trailing their white peers. When school officials learned in 2002 they had won the award, they were so pleased they fought over who would announce the news at a school board meeting.

Supporters trumpeted the partnership as a way to address the achievement gap.

The science foundation awarded $5.5 million for the first two years of the grant, Spresser said. UMBC officials said they have billed the schools for $723,322 of that grant money but have been paid only $74,473.

On Feb. 13, Andrea M. Barr, an auditor for the county schools, wrote about "specific concerns" with UMBC's documentation for certain billings. "The UMBC accounting documentation ... does not support the invoiced amounts," she wrote. Two weeks later, on Feb. 26, the two sides held a meeting. According to a meeting agenda, the county schools wanted UMBC to account for $233,000 spent on graduate students' tuition and $209,000 billed for stipends.

The school system also questioned payments for work by four program participants, $5,326.45 in travel expenses, $1,784 in supply purchases and overtime for a temporary information technology associate.

On March 5, Vice Provost Lee and Elaine Young, UMBC's associate vice provost for research, sent a letter recording a conversation between UMBC's president and the superintendent the night before. "This letter is to confirm Dr. Hrabowski's decision discussed with Dr. Hairston during their telephone conversation last evening noting that UMBC would not participate further," they wrote.

Lee said in an interview last week that the sides have since agreed to resolve their disagreement for the students' sake.

"The reason why everyone is working so hard on these issues is we really do want to make a difference in those schools. We really do want to eliminate the achievement gap," she said.

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