Hogan proposes 'corruption' investigator for Maryland's public schools

Gov. Larry Hogan said Monday there is a crisis of confidence in Maryland’s public schools and proposed a new “investigator general” to root out what he described as corruption, mismanagement and ineptitude in some Maryland school districts.

In Hogan’s vision, the investigator would have subpoena power, the authority to summon people to public hearings and a bully pulpit.

“Our children desperately need someone to fight for their civil rights,” Hogan, a Republican, said during a wide-ranging news conference in Annapolis. “There’s not enough accountability.”

Establishing such a position would require the endorsement of the General Assembly.

The presiding officers of the legislature, Democrats House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, declined to comment on Hogan’s characterization of schools or the idea of an investigator general.

But several other prominent Democrats offered lukewarm support for an inquisitor who could efficiently ferret out waste and enforce ethics laws.

“I do think there probably should be a role ... to make sure that counties are addressing any ethical issues that come up,” said Baltimore Democrat Del. Maggie McIntosh, chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Bill Ferguson, also a Baltimore Democrat, said nobody wants to see public money wasted but that he’d consider such an investigator role with skepticism.

“I believe education dollars are best spent educating kids and least effectively used building out further education bureaucracy,” he said.

The investigator, as proposed by Hogan, would be an independent watchdog, appointed by a bipartisan political committee, and housed in the state’s Department of Education.

The person would have broad power to investigate procurement, ethics, graduation requirements, illegal conduct and school budgets, among other things. Maryland spends about $6 billion of its $43 billion state budget on K-12 education.

“It is one of the largest expenses in our state budget. There needs to be accountability,” said Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, a Baltimore County Republican. “It needs to be reviewed so the governor and the legislature know the money is being spent wisely.”

John R. Woolums, lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said the state education department and its superintendent already have ample authority over local school systems. The General Assembly passed a whistleblower protection measure just last year protecting school employees, Woolums said.

“Let that process move forward rather than creating a new office,” he said.

In pitching his investigator, Hogan pointed to allegations revealed this fall that Baltimore County’s top leaders failed to disclose they were paid contractors of a company awarded hundreds of millions in school technology contracts, to a mold problem in Howard County schools two years ago, and to an ongoing controversy about alleged grade-tampering in Prince George’s County.

Amid Baltimore City schools’ ongoing heating crisis, the governor also sharply rebuked the city school system for its way of spending money, accusing the district of having some of the highest administrative costs in the country and mismanaging state taxpayer dollars that help pay for schools.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh declined to comment on Hogan’s statements about mismanagement and corruption in local school districts across the state, except to say she believed that criticism was intended for other school systems.

Separately, the Republican governor announced the state would spend $2.5 million out of an emergency, discretionary account to help pay to fix the heat in Baltimore City schools.

Schools were shut down districtwide Friday because of inadequate heating systems during the recent cold snap that had left some students huddled in parkas inside classrooms and sparked widespread concern.

Hogan called the situation a “horrendous crisis” and noted recent Baltimore Sun reporting that found the city returned $66 million designated for heating and air conditioning systems in recent years because the projects took too long or grew too expensive.

The state’s Department of General Services, not the city, will oversee how the emergency aid is spent.

The governor also promised to introduce legislation in the forthcoming General Assembly session to undo a law prescribing how Maryland uses test scores to determine which schools are “failing.” The governor said that he wants test scores to make up 80 percent of the determination, up from the 65 percent in current law.

Hogan’s legislation opens another front of partisan debate in the legislature, which last year overrode his veto of the current law.

The state’s largest teacher’s union, the Maryland State Education Association, pushed hard for the current law and on Monday rebuffed the idea that it should be changed.

Sean Johnson, assistant executive director for the organization, said the state needs a process for evaluating schools that looks at more than test scores.

“When you only look at test scores, you’re missing all the other pieces that go into making a school great,” Johnson said.

The General Assembly reconvenes in Annapolis on Wednesday.

Baltimore Sun reporters Scott Dance and Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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