Arundel to review policy on contracts

School system decision on safety deal questioned

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.

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 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.

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.

McNelly said he was unhappy 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 recently convened to examine board policy and recommend changes.

Good Friday

Howard County government offices, including public libraries, will be closed for Good Friday, though the Alpha Ridge Landfill and courts will be open.

Parking meters must be fed tomorrow, but are free on Easter Sunday.

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