Schools agree to report spending to the council

Gardina says vending, other revenue to be listed

April 04, 2006|By JOSH MITCHELL AND LIZ F. KAY | JOSH MITCHELL AND LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTERS

A Baltimore County lawmaker who has pushed for more County Council oversight of the school system said yesterday that education officials have agreed to report on how individual schools spend money collected from vending machines and other sources.

County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina said schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston assured him the school system will send the County Council and the county budget director twice-yearly reports detailing how individual schools spent money. Also, Gardina said, the school system will allow county auditors to examine school records for evidence of illegally enrolled students, barring any objection from attorneys from the schools.

In return, Gardina last night withdrew a resolution that would have urged the school system to include in its annual budget information on the individual schools' "activity funds." Gardina introduced that resolution after news reports that some schools have spent the money on political campaigns.

"I really think there needs to be more oversight, but I think this is a first step," said Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat. "This will give us a detail of where the money's coming in or going out. If we're not satisfied with it, we can always pursue" other options.

A spokeswoman for Hairston said it was premature to comment on any such agreement.

County Council members, saying they feel limited in how much they can weigh in on issues involving the schools, have tried to gain more information on the system's practices. Council members first asked for information on out-of-county students in 2004. More recently, they said they would mount a legal fight to obtain access to school records.

Kara Calder, the county schools spokeswoman, said Hairston met with high school principals yesterday morning to brief them on a resolution by Gardina that would have urged the school system to include in its budget information on the activity funds. Hairston also used the meeting to "reinforce their responsibility regarding management of those funds," Calder said.

After the meeting, the 19 principals signed a letter that was faxed to County Council members stating their opposition to Gardina's resolution. The principals stated that schools already report their spending to school system auditors in monthly reports.

The letter also says the funds are used for field trips, scholarships, Advanced Placement and SAT exam materials, staff development and "payment for students in financial need." Gardina said school officials have told him they opposed his resolution because they want the activity accounts to remain discretionary.

His resolution followed a report in The Sun last month that nearly 20 schools in Maryland have made donations to political campaigns in recent years. The story reported that five Baltimore County schools gave a total of more than $1,600 since 2000.

"Any county department has to account for funds that it receives, and it can't create private slush funds," said County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat. "Otherwise you lose ... checks and balances. That's the whole purpose of having a legislative branch of government - to have a check and balance to ensure those funds are properly spent and accounted for."

Kamenetz, who said yesterday he had not spoken to Hairston, said he was happy to hear that Gardina and Hairston were able to work out an agreement that did not involve a council action such as a resolution.

"I thank Dr. Hairston for taking a pragmatic approach," Kamenetz said. "So long as we have the end result, that's what's in the best interest of everyone."

The agreement would also allow Brian Rowe, the county auditor, to examine records at several schools for evidence that students from outside the county are enrolled, Gardina said.

Council members said they believe illegally enrolled students contribute to school crowding and could cost the school system a minimum of $8 million a year. Gardina said the aim of the audit would be to determine the extent of the problem, not to remove particular students.

Rowe said last week that school system administrators denied access to the records.

Asked about their position on the audit, school officials said federal law shields many records from being released.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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