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County solicitor says school budget review committee does not violate state law

#HoCoMd Council legal counsel: School oversight committe doesn't violate state law.

The Howard County Council's legal counsel said Monday a committee proposed by Council Chairman Calvin Ball to review the school system's budget does not violate state law, rebutting statements by the school system's attorney who said the committee oversteps the council's authority and compromises the school system's independence from the county government.

Ball's proposal, which will be considered on July 8, creates a committee with representation from the council, the county executive and community groups, to review the school system's budget and recommend improvements to next year's budget. The proposal caps a contentious budget season during which the county government did not fund roughly $50 million of the school system's record high request this year.

Jim Vannoy, the senior assistant county solicitor of Howard County's Office of Law, said the legislation does not give the committee any authority over the superintendent and the Board of Education. The committee, which is purely advisory to the council, also does not require the board to take any specific steps.

Ball said Vannoy's legal advice was important to address recent statements made by school system officials.

"In listening to the board and superintendent's attorney, I just wanted to purposefully clarify some things," said Ball.

In a meeting earlier this month, Leslie Stellman, an attorney contracted by the school system, said the "county's fiscal authority" through the committee would erode the board's "immunity as a state agency."

At a public hearing Monday, the proposal, which includes a financial audit of the school system by the council's auditing office, drew support from residents who reiterated coined terms that have become common vernacular at open meetings related to the school system: transparency and accountability.

This year's budget process put the council in an "untenable position" due to "lack of information or trust" in the school system, said Joshua Kaufman, who was a member and county school board chairman of the board from 2003 to 2006.

Residents acclaimed the committee as a welcome replacement for the school system's own operating budget review committee, which the board disbanded two years ago after questions about its effectiveness. An internal audit by the school system following the suspension found the committee was inconsistent with the board's policy and direction.

Many recommendations in the last three years were "not viable or had already been recommended," according to the audit, which concluded the board should rely on other methods to engage the public instead of relying on a committee that was not "a prevailing practice" in other jurisdictions.

Since suspending the budget review committee, the board has created new opportunities for public feedback, in addition to submitted and oral testimony, including an annual guide on the superintendent's budget, televised and online explanations of the budget and a new budget survey which garnered more than 1,000 responses, according to John White, the school system's spokesman.

Christina Delmont-Small, who is running for a seat on the board and served as co-chairwoman of the school's budget review committee, said as a committee member she witnessed "the school system's reluctance" and "downright refusal" to provide information necessary to analyze the budget.

"The school system continues to hold all the cards," she said.

While residents lauded the council's proposed committee as a step in the right direction, Paul Lemle, president of the Howard County Education Association, cautioned the success of the committee, if approved, was contingent on access to data from the school board. The union has not received information requested from the school system in early May related to health claims, which may prompt the union to file a grievance claim against the school system, Lemle said.

Board chairwoman Christine O'Connor, who in late May said the proposal to create the review committee attempts to "undermine" the board's independence and "politicize education as never before," said this week the board looks forward to working closely with the council.

"The school system is already audited multiple times," O'Connor added in a statement.

The council will meet with the school board at a quarterly meeting at 8:30 a.m on July 6. The council will consider the legislation at its meeting at 7 p.m. on July 8. 

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