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Howard County Council approves request for school system performance audit capped at $250,000

With a capped cost of $250,000, the Howard County Council approved a request for the school system to undergo a performance audit by the Maryland State Department of Education.

The County Council voted 4-0 to move forward with County Executive Calvin Ball’s request for a performance audit of the school system during a legislative session Monday morning. Councilman Opel Jones was not at the meeting.

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The audit will look into the school system’s health and dental fund, budgeting and actual expenditure variance, personnel cost development, supplemental income and non-salary benefits, and procurement, analyzing the 77-school district’s sole source contracting and special education contracting.

The cost of the performance audit, which will be paid by the county, will not exceed $250,000, according to the council resolution. There is no exact cost for the audit at this time.

Councilman David Yungmann said he is “pleased there is a cost cap.”

Echoing Yungmann, Councilwoman Deb Jung said it’s important to have a maximum amount set.

The timeline of the audit is expected to take between six and seven months, according to Jennifer Sager, the county’s legislative coordinator.

“But every effort will be made to finish this as soon as possible, kind of knowing that the budget process starts in December,” she said.

In June, the school board unanimously adopted an $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.

Walsh added the audit will allow for comparisons to be made between school system and county spending.

After introducing his request in June, Ball announced a more narrow scope of the audit earlier this month.

“I think this audit with a focused scope ... will ensure our schools are living up to their expectations,” Ball said Monday.

Ball added the audit process will help the county “spend money with transparency," and to allow every educator, parent, student and citizen to understand “how and where our money is being spent.”

The original proposed audit called for looking into the school system’s legal fees and payments for outside counsel, administration staffing levels and salaries, vendor payments and invoices, procurement process, and outsourced activities.

“I am pleased with the new, narrowed scope,” Jung said. “In its original form, I would not have supported it; [it was] too broad [and would] cost too much money.”

Yungmann said that while he appreciates the work done by the county and school system, he isn’t sure if the audit’s scope is narrowed.

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“I don’t know if it’s more of a narrowed scope, but it’s definitely more focused,” he said. “When it was first introduced, it wasn’t very focused.”

The defined scope was created through a collaborative, ongoing dialogue between Ball and the school system administration.

“I think it was great; it was a much more collaborative effort” between the two, Council Chairwoman Christiana Rigby said.

The entire audit process will make the upcoming budget cycle “more collaborative” between the county and school system, Rigby said.

When asked for comment after Monday’s vote, the school system referred to Superintendent Michael Martirano’s statement from earlier this month.

“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,” Martirano said July 12.

As defined by the state’s Office of Legislative Audits, the purpose of a performance audit “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.”

The county Board of Education approved the annual internal audit of the school system in June. The fiscal 2020 audit will cover individual schools, school system subjects, management assistance and board assistance.

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