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Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announces smaller scope of potential school system audit

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball last week announced a more narrow scope of his request for a performance audit of the school system.

The performance audit, to be completed by the Maryland State Department of Education, would look into the Howard County Public School System’s health and dental fund, budgeting and actual expenditure variance, personnel cost development, and supplemental income and non-salary benefits.

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The narrowed scope is “based on an HCPSS commitment to share other information that may also generate cost-saving opportunities,” according to a July 12 news release from Howard County government.

Ball and the school system administration have had collaborative, ongoing dialogue on how best to define the scope of the audit since it was proposed last month.

In a statement, Ball thanked the school system “for their help in determining the best focus areas for this performance audit.

“I still believe that every educator, student, parent and resident in Howard County deserves to know exactly how and where our money is being spent,” Ball said. “Working together, we will continue to ensure this audit process builds even more accountability and helps us find the best financial path forward.”

The purpose of a performance audit, as defined by the state’s Office of Legislative Audits, “is to evaluate whether an agency or program is operating in an economic, efficient and effective manner or to determine whether desired program results have been achieved.”

Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said in a statement, “After very constructive discussions with the county executive and his team, we were able to establish a scope of the audit through consensus, and one which will yield meaningful recommendations that validate or improve our budgeting practices moving into the future.”

Ball announced his calling for a state audit in June, two weeks after the school board finished a contentious budget season, unanimously adopting a $894.2 million operating budget, a $54.6 million capital budget — both for fiscal 2020 — a $654.6 million capital improvement program for 2021-25, and the 2020-29 $1.12 billion long-range master plan budget.

At the time, Ball’s request was for the audit to cover legal fees and payments to and the use of outside counsel; administration staffing levels and salaries; vendor payments and invoices; procurement process; and outsourced activities.

Ball filed the initial request “in the interest of validating the existing practices of HCPSS, improving and identifying cost efficiencies within existing processes, and furthering our collective efforts toward transparency in the fiscal management and operations of our government,” according to the memorandum sent to County Council.

The state has not provided a cost estimate for either the initial or updated audit plan, according to a county spokesman.

Holly Sun, the county’s budget administrator, said during a County Council public hearing Monday night, “At this point it is my understanding that the administration has a desire to take on the costs rather than share the costs with the school system.”

In June 2017, a performance audit was requested by Gov. Larry Hogan and the Prince George’s County Public Schools CEO to look into the school system’s graduation rates “based on allegations of grade changes and manipulation of student records that resulted in inflated graduation rates,” according to Maryland’s Board of Public Works.

The audit cost $499,705. In May 2018, a follow-up performance audit was conducted, costing $595,500, according to the board.

Baltimore City Public Schools requested a state performance audit on its transportation department in June 2017. The audit cost $102,500, according to the state Board of Public Works.

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The county “should be able to provide more information about the cost before the council vote,” Sun said during the public hearing.

Amendments can be filed to Ball’s request until July 25, and a County Council vote on the audit is expected July 29.

The Board of Education last month unanimously approved conducting an internal audit of the school system.

The fiscal 2020 audit, similar to the audit passed for fiscal 2019, is divided into four areas: individual schools, school system subjects, management assistance and board assistance.

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