Records closed to auditors

Balto. Co. officials looking for nonresident students in schools

April 03, 2006|By JOSH MITCHELL AND LIZ F. KAY | JOSH MITCHELL AND LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTERS

Under orders from the Baltimore County Council, two auditors went to Towson High School last week on a mission: to examine school records for evidence that students from out of the county might be going to class there.

All they got, their boss later said, was a familiar feeling of frustration.

The school system says federal law shields many of its records from public view. The County Council, under increasing pressure from parents who complain about crowded schools, asserts that it is entitled to look over the school system's shoulder, since it pays most of the bills.

And now council members say they're determined - even if it means a legal battle - to do just that.

"If the types of complaints that we're getting are legitimate, then there's a considerable number of students attending Baltimore County public schools at the expense of Baltimore County taxpayers," said County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina. "We have schools that are busting at the seams. When you have kids coming outside of the jurisdiction, we're not planning for them."

The questions about out-of-county students are only the most recent instance of friction between the schools and the council. A year and a half ago, under a proposal by Gardina, the council requested information from school officials on students from the city illegally attending schools, and last month he renewed that demand. The council is also pressing school officials to consider redistricting severely crowded schools.

And today the council will vote on a resolution that would urge the school system to detail how individual schools spend money collected from vending machines, PTA donations and other sources. The resolution follows a recent report in The Sun that five Baltimore County schools had used such funds on political campaigns.

Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, like his colleagues, said the elected leaders and school officials generally get along, adding that the two sides have greatly improved their relationship since he took office.

But council members say they feel limited in how they can weigh in on school issues - even though the county pays for about three-fifths of the school budget.

"I can tell you my No. 1 frustration in my 12 years in office has been the lack of structural ability of the Baltimore County Council to provide any meaningful oversight over the school system," said Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat.

He said his frustration is rooted in the system: The governor appoints school board members, who hire the superintendent, with none of those positions subject to council confirmation.

"The problem is the school board is not accountable to anybody, and we're accountable to everybody," said Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat. He said council members face pressure from voters to fix school problems, even though their role is limited to approving the budget and performing financial audits.

County school board President Tom Grzymski said he thinks appointed boards are better than elected boards because they can remain independent and focus on education, rather than campaigning.

And school officials say they are already on top of the problems that the council wants to address.

For example, the school system employs 40 pupil personnel workers whose duties include verifying students' addresses to make sure none are fraudulently enrolled in county schools. School policy requires that parents show multiple forms of identification and copies of leases or mortgage statements or the deeds or titles to homes.

It was not clear how many students from outside the county attend county schools. Brice Freeman, a schools spokesman, said late last week that he could not immediately say how many cases had been investigated or how many students had been removed from schools for living outside the county.

Grzymski said he thought there may not be as many illegally enrolled students as some believe. For example, some students seen on public transportation could be traveling to child care, he said.

"If a problem is reported or suspected ... we try to investigate it to the best of our ability," he said.

Gardina said he believes that at least 1 percent of county students live elsewhere and estimated their annual cost to the school system at $8 million.

In the fall of 2004, Gardina proposed a resolution, which the council passed, asking the school system to report on its efforts to identify and weed out students who live outside the county. The school system responded with letters that, Gardina said, did not satisfy his request.

Last month, the council unanimously passed a resolution that authorized County Auditor Brian J. Rowe to examine school records for evidence of fraudulent enrollment.

Two employees of Rowe's office met with Towson High's principal and three school system administrators at the school last week, but the school officials denied access to the records, one of the auditors said.

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