Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. campaigned on making education his top priority, so it was no surprise when he partnered in 2019 with the public school system to prioritize high school construction projects.
Communities were pitted against one another at the time, competing for limited funds to repair or replace their high schools. The county executive’s administration and the school system hired an outside consultant to dispassionately rank projects according to capacity concerns, educational equity and the condition of facilities.
But when a list of high school capital improvement projects appeared in a draft budget proposal, school board members were stunned to discover some long-sought projects were missing. The group voted Jan. 5 to put some of those high school projects back into the budget request for next school year.
The construction list is the latest big decision that has created conflict among school board members, administrators, the county council and the county executive who share responsibility for public education of 111,000 Baltimore County children.
The school board has tussled with county leaders over several such high-profile decisions since the board transitioned to a hybrid model in 2018, with seven elected and four appointed members, along with one student member. Before the change, school board members were appointed by the governor, often based on the recommendations of the county executive.
Last year, Olszewski cut tens of millions from a board-approved budget he called “aspirational.” And the county council and executive have criticized school district secrecy following a November ransomware attack that temporarily shut down classes.
Amid the friction, some of the county’s elected leaders are pushing for more supervision of the school system.
Olszewski, a Democrat, wants state lawmakers to expand the authority of the county inspector general to include oversight of the schools. And state Sen. Chris West, a Republican, has proposed a bill that would give the county council and county executive more power over the school system’s budget by allowing them to set conditions on spending.
School board chair Makeda Scott and vice chair Julie Henn did not respond to a request for comment on the bills. Henn has previously stated that she supports additional oversight of the county schools as called for in both Olszewski’s and West’s bills.
“This is a positive step in the right direction,” Henn said in a Facebook post. “The Board can’t do it alone. And we need additional authority to do our part.”
Superintendent of schools Darryl L. Williams welcomed the calls for transparency, but said he is concerned the bills are redundant and could hinder the school system’s ability to pivot when unexpected expenses arise.
“Running a school system is not like running a small business,” Williams said. “I just think we need to have some flexibility but also to be held accountable.”
Tensions came to a head after November’s ransomware attack, with county officials pressing school leaders to reveal more about how they were handling the incident. In separate virtual meetings with county council members and state lawmakers, school officials declined to answer questions including whether the schools had paid the hackers and whether the hackers had stolen students’ personal information, according to West and County Councilman David Marks.
“I think the ransomware attack was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Marks, a Perry Hall Republican. “To be completely in the dark about all of the details of the ransomware attack is completely unacceptable. There was almost no information divulged, even through the county council is the funding authority.”
Marks said the school system appears to have “an insular culture.” People outside the school system “from divergent political viewpoints think that there needs to be greater accountability.”
Olszewski has also been critical of the lack of details provided by the school system. Still, his administration says that its move to give the inspector general oversight of the schools was always a priority and not prompted by a specific event.
The county inspector general’s mission is to identify fraud, waste and misconduct in county government and promote efficiency. Creating the position, now held by former prosecutor Kelly Madigan, was one of Olszewski’s first official actions.
Expanding the office’s authority to include schools “is the natural next step in our work to make every corner of our government more open, accessible, and transparent,” Olszewski said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun.
The state has an inspector general for education with oversight over Maryland school systems, but the county wants to ensure that office has enough local support to investigate and respond to complaints, said Olszewski spokesman Sean Naron.
The county spends nearly $1.9 billion a year on public schools, which is roughly 48% of the county operating budget.
The oversight bills are the latest proposed changes to the school system’s governance. In 2014, the Maryland General Assembly voted to convert Baltimore County’s board to a mix of elected and appointed members, a move that was bolstered by strong community support.
Before the change, the county executive’s ability to choose school board members sometimes left members beholden to the county leader. In 2015, school leaders backed away from an ambitious budget proposal after the county executive quietly summoned board members to his office and told them to reduce the request.
Around the time Baltimore County held its first school board election in 2018, former school superintendent Dallas Dance was sentenced to prison. Dance pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his failure to disclose to the school board about $147,000 in consulting work, including pay from a firm that won a district contract with his help.
School board officials questioned at the time how they could trust future superintendents, given that Dance had lied. Williams can still feel some lingering wariness, he said.
“We’re trying to continue to rebuild that trust,” Williams said.
The superintendent is working this month with school board members to send a draft budget to the county.
Last year, the school board asked for funding above what was requested in Williams’ ambitious budget proposal and would have required an 11% increase from county taxpayers. But the final decision rests with the county executive and council, who did not approve any increases for 2020.
Williams said he has learned from that experience and this year drafted a more “realistic” budget that calls for an increase of 1.8%. Some school board members are once again signaling a desire to further increase the budget request, saying they should ask the county government for what’s needed.
“Many county executives over the years have expressed frustration that once they approve the school system’s budget, they then have very little input or oversight,” said former County Executive Don Mohler, a Democrat who was a top aide to county executives Jim Smith and Kevin Kamenetz.
That is not unique to Baltimore County. There’s frequently “some degree of tension” because local school boards and superintendents in Maryland are empowered to develop budgets, but don’t “have any obligation to think about whether their proposals are affordable, said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.
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“It puts the county officials in a tough spot,” Sanderson said.
Some community groups are trying to smooth out the relationships and lend their support. For instance, the Randallstown and Baltimore County chapters of the NAACP wrote a joint statement supporting Williams’ handling of the ransomware attack.
Randallstown’s chapter president Ryan Coleman has been meeting with education and county leaders to discuss goals and form a “branch” between the groups, he said.
“I’m trying to bring the temperature down a little,” Coleman said.
Recently, Coleman has noticed that some of the county’s elected leaders refer to the needs of their own voting district rather than the school system as a whole, he said. He believes Baltimore County’s elected leaders have their hearts in the right place. Still, the legacy of past conflicts have “tainted” the situation.
“At the end of the day, we’re all one school system,” he said.
Baltimore Sun Media reporter Taylor DeVille contributed to this article.