School board bill faces opposition even as system is criticized for lack of transparency

'Checks and balances' needed in Baltimore County

February 09, 2011|By Raven L. Hill, The Baltimore Sun

A bill to create a partly elected Baltimore County school board faced opposition Wednesday at a hearing in Annapolis even as the school system came under fire for a lack of transparency, particularly involving contracts.

State lawmakers heard testimony Wednesday about a bill sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin that would add some elected members to the appointed board. Another bill sponsored by Sen. Kathy Klausmeier would appoint a task force to study the issue.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said he supports Klausmeier's bill, which would give the public an opportunity to weigh in, because there have been no formal hearings or public dialogue thus far.

"We have a brand-new county executive, a brand new County Council. I think the county should be given an opportunity to also participate in that dialogue in a meaningful way," Kamenetz said. "We think that the study bill is the appropriate mechanism."

The testimony came as questions have been raised regarding whether the school system has handled contracts properly. The system paid EduTrax, a Georgia software company, at least $4 million over the past decade without seeking competitive offers from other companies. The president of EduTrax previously worked for Superintendent Joe A. Hairston in Georgia. Last year, the superintendent came under scrutiny for giving a Baltimore County school system employee the copyright to a computerized grading tool, called the Articulated Instruction Module (AIM), that was created in part by district staff.

State Sen. Jim Brochin said he has become increasingly concerned about the school system, citing the EduTrax software contract.

"I like checks and balances. We live under checks and balances," Brochin said. "I think that a hybrid school board is going to make the superintendent and county board of education better."

Committee members questioned Zirkin about the legislation, focusing on diversity, public input and student outcomes.

"This is not about Joe Hairston or the current school board. This is not about AIM or some of the things you read about in the paper" on Wednesday, Zirkin said, referring to the EduTrax contract. "This is simply a principle about democracy that we do not have in Baltimore County."

The county Board of Education and county branch of the NAACP expressed opposition to Zirkin's bill.

There are companion bills to Zirkin's and Klausmeier's legislation in the House. The county delegation will meet later this week to discuss them. Hairston is expected to testify before the delegation Friday about the school budget.

Meanwhile, the teachers union president said in an interview she was concerned about the lack of transparency in district business practices.

"I believe there has to be some changes to leadership or processes and procedures in order for everyone to regain faith in our school system and truly believe appropriate oversight and true collaboration will occur," said Cheryl Bost, president of the county teachers union.

Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, a Baltimore County parent, also criticized the contracts. "Dr. Hairston's apparent inability to see a conflict of interest in entering into agreements benefiting former employees shows a serious lack of judgment," she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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