Board to review policy on contracts

School system decision on safety deal questioned

`A lot of concerns'

Anne Arundel

April 08, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County Board of Education decided yesterday to review a local policy that gives the superintendent authority to grant certain contracts, regardless of size, without consulting the board.

This week, board member Michael McNelly questioned the school system's granting of a $395,000 contract to the Florida-based National Institute for School and Workplace Safety for a safety assessment of the county's 117 schools. School officials said they did not seek board approval because it wasn't required.

"There have been a lot of concerns from the community on this issue," McNelly said at yesterday's school board meeting. "I think we are obligated to ask questions."

McNelly questioned why the institute won the contract when it was only the second-lowest bidder, and he expressed doubts about the firm's experience with large jobs. The company said in a news release last month that the Anne Arundel contract would double its revenues.

McNelly also raised concerns during the meeting about a half-dozen other contracts - for work ranging from asbestos removal to painting - that Superintendent Eric J. Smith's purchasing agents recently granted without asking for board approval. He asked for a review of school board policy on who has the authority to award contracts.

The policy states that the school board must vote on contracts worth more than $15,000 for school construction, the maintenance of school facilities, architectural and engineering services, procurements from a single company, transportation services and contracts involving real estate.

But the superintendent's purchasing supervisor has authority over "all other contracts for any dollar amount for materials, supplies, equipment, maintenance, insurance, temporary personnel and services," as well as contracts less than $15,000, the policy says.

McNelly conceded that the school safety contract probably fell under the exception, but he said he was unsure about the other contracts. "It's a legitimate concern," McNelly said. "It's gotta be done out front."

Smith agreed that the policy "needs some clearing up." But he said he opposed giving the school board authority over more contracts. "Instead of having one purchasing agent, you have eight or nine," Smith said, referring to the eight-member board. "It opens up some opportunities for some additional problems."

On Monday, the former board president's inquiry about the school safety contract touched off a flurry of activity at school system headquarters. McNelly said his interest was piqued by an article in a local newspaper about the safety survey.

Smith directed his staff to compile for board members a packet of documents detailing the bid process, and he asked an independent auditor and a law firm that regularly advises the school board to review whether his purchasing staff had acted within policy.

During the meeting, McNelly repeatedly rebuffed Smith's attempts to let the attorney and auditor present their assessments about whether his staff had acted properly.

Advice of law firm

McNelly said he was unhappy that Smith had sought the advice of the law firm and the auditor without the board's knowledge. He told Smith the findings should be presented to a committee of board members recently convened to examine board policy and recommend changes.

McNelly's colleagues did not object to those instructions, but board member Konrad Wayson said he approved of Smith's seeking legal guidance. "I for one want to know right away," Wayson said. "I'm happy that somebody's looking into it."

Smith said he had wanted to promptly address McNelly's concerns. "Your statement was that $1.7 million [in contracts] were in noncompliance," Smith told McNelly. "That type of concern led me to the conclusion that prompt investigation was required."

McNelly replied: "There were no accusations. In fact, I told you I had 100 percent confidence in the purchasing officer."

It is unclear when the committee charged with reviewing the school board's policy would examine the issue and make recommendations. Board member Eugene Peterson, who is on the committee, said a timeline had not been established.

Public criticism of the contract stemmed from a small group of Annapolis High School parents upset at Smith for the way he handled a controversy involving the principal.

Smith removed Deborah Williams over safety concerns last month, after defending her for eight months.

Explanation wanted

Parent Curt Hess, who had campaigned for Williams' ouster, wrote an e-mail asking leaders and the media to look into why Smith awarded a safety contract to a firm that had reported safety issues at Annapolis High under Williams.

"They owe us an explanation of what is happening at this school," Hess said.

But Smith said it was the other way around. He said the contract was awarded in February, and he then asked the company to start its survey at Annapolis High.

Smith dismissed any connection between events at Annapolis High and the awarding of the contract.

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