A bitter feud over who controls the purse strings of Anne Arundel County's schools spiked this week when the Board of Education voted to spend $4.6 million on a computer system in open defiance of the County Council.
The county auditor is seeking an opinion from the Office of Law on whether the board on Wednesday had the authority to contract for the payroll and personnel data software.
Two nights earlier, the County Council had rejected the school system's request for $3 million to make a down payment on the system, saying it wanted to see whether other county agencies could share it before approving the funding next month.
At issue now is whether the board's action circumvented county and state laws, which dictate that the executive and council have final say over how money is shifted between certain spending categories.
"I don't expect to learn that they intentionally made an expenditure that was not permissible, County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson said. "Nevertheless, we need to see what we see.
Auditor Teresa Sutherland was not available for comment, but several council members expressed shock or disappointment - and wondered where the school system had come up with the money.
"I was under the impression that things were pretty bleak over there, and that they didn't have enough cash," said Council Chairman Ronald D. Dillon Jr. "I'm kind of surprised and caught off-guard."
School system spokesman Bob Mosier, however, said it was money left over from the fiscal year that ends June 30 and was being spent appropriately.
"The money came from scrimping and saving and finding remaining money in the '07 budget," he said.
Relations between the county and its school system grew chilly in recent months over the budget. school Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell proposed a 17 percent increase in funding for the next fiscal year, but the county cut that to 8 percent.
Maxwell skipped the traditional budget unveiling in Annapolis and publicly accused county leaders of shortchanging students. In response, County Executive John R. Leopold has said the board is wasting money on a bloated administration and has failed to recognize the county can't print its own money.
Both sides acknowledge a lack of communication.
While school systems and the governments that oversee their spending are bound to occasionally butt heads, this kind of public standoff is unusual, said Mike Griffith, a school finance expert with the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based nonprofit that tracks educational policy trends.
"You don't hear these conflicts in other counties in Maryland because they've learned to work together," he said. "It's always smarter to take care of this outside the public eye."
Leopold, who took office in December, and Maxwell, who arrived in July, are both new, Griffith added "and there's probably a little give needed on both sides."
Through a spokeswoman, Leopold declined to comment.
Despite the county's fiscal conservatism, the superintendent called for a $135 million increase in his first budget to "turn the schools from good to great."
The budget approved by the school board, however, put the onus on county leaders to make cuts. Expecting the worst, school officials boycotted the unveiling of Leopold's spending plan on May 1.
Though school system needs consumed half - a record amount - of the budget, Maxwell denounced the 8 percent increase as putting the county in a "very precarious situation."
His concern extended to capital projects. Leopold had cut several studies to renovate or replace schools, raising the ire of the school board. The council later established a $2.5 million fund for feasibility studies that the school system could draw from - only with council approval.
In dueling newspaper columns in The Sun's Anne Arundel section, Maxwell said the county "kept what was rightfully ours" and forced the school system to play "Mother, May I." Leopold countered that taxpayer money "does not `rightfully' belong to any department of government."
Further riling the school system, Leopold backed emergency legislation on Monday to exclude money for the new software from a routine fourth-quarter transfer request. The council approved it, 6-1.
On Wednesday, the board signed the contract anyway.
Mosier said the district, which is using a 17-year-old payroll and benefits system for 25,000 people, couldn't wait any longer.
"Every day that we wait is a day that our employees and their dependents are at risk of not getting paid, of not [having] the proper health care coverage," he said.
Councilman Daryl Jones said he was disappointed by the board's haste because it's going to cost the county more in the long run to use multiple payroll systems.
"The shock for me was the lack of cooperation. There is no surprise or hiding the fact that there is tension between the superintendent and county executive," he said. "I believe that working together on this HR system was one way of getting to mend the differences between the two. It's one thing for them to disagree, but you want to keep a professional tone to whatever you're doing ... "
Dillon hopes to confer with Sutherland and his colleagues on the council next week, and said he's been trying for weeks to organize a meeting between Leopold and Maxwell to mend fences.
The 2009 budget process starts next month.