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Howard school attorney: Proposed budget review committee illegal

An attorney for Howard County schools said Thursday that the creation of a school budget review committee as proposed by Howard County Council Chairman Calvin Ball would violate state law.

"It appoints people with no necessary knowledge of what a financial audit is from groups, many of whom are antagonistic to this board," said the attorney, Leslie Stellman, who is contracted by the school system.

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If passed, the bill filed by Ball Monday would create a committee appointed by County Council members, the County Executive and various community groups to review the school system's financial processes; Ball said this measure was necessary given the "enormous discrepancy" — approximately $48 million — between the amount of funds requested by the Board of Education and that granted by County Executive Allan Kittleman for the 2016-2017 school year.

Stellman told the Board of Education at its meeting Thursday that the creation of such a committee falls outside of the council's authority, and that it would compromise the school system's independence from the county government.

"The county's fiscal authority through an agency such as this creation would erode your immunity as a state agency," he said.

In a letter posted on the school system's website in late May, Board Chairwoman Christine O'Connor wrote of Ball's proposal: "This maneuver appears to be an attempt to undermine the independence of the Board and politicize education as never before in Howard County."

Howard County schools had its own operating budget review committee until the board voted to disband it in fall 2014 amid questions of the body's effectiveness. The move has since been criticized by parents, educators and residents.

School board member Cindy Vaillancourt questioned Stellman's claims Thursday.

"If they want to have their own budget review committee that helps them understand, they can do that, can't they?" she asked.

Stellman said that the committee represents micromanagement by the county government that threatens to turn the school system into "an arm of the county government."

He said that another measure in the bill proposing an audit of the school system budget by the county auditor is, however, legal.

Following discussion, the board voted 8 to 0 for its chairwoman and vice chairwoman to work with Stellman to draft amendments to the bill that meet "the needs of the school board, the County Council and the community."

These amendments will be presented to the board before they are proposed to the County Council, school officials said.

The board also voted 8 to 0 to continue "collaboration" between the school board and the County Council during this process, and to seek an opinion from the Maryland State Department of Education on the legislation.

The Howard County Council is set to hear public testimony about the legislation on June 20.

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