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Howard council members seek second audit of county schools this year

The Howard County Council will consider a resolution that requests the state complete a performance audit of the school system.
The Howard County Council will consider a resolution that requests the state complete a performance audit of the school system. (Fatimah Waseem)

Howard County Council members are seeking a second audit of Howard County Public Schools in five months — a highly unusual move that comes amid already contentious and strained ties between the two governing bodies.

"The grandstanding that has been going on is concerning," said Councilman Greg Fox. "No side is clean on this."

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Council members Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa want the state's education department to audit the school system's handling of legal fees, outside legal counsel, procurement and special education staffing and services. The council will consider the request, in the form of legislation, next month.

The request comes on the heels of the council's unanimous approval to enforce legal action against the school system if it resists or stalls an earlier council-requested audit of the school system's finances.

The council called for that financial audit — which reviews financing of special education services, legal services and health benefits — in July following an acrimonious budget season that left the school system with $50 million less than its record-high request of $856 million.

The roll-out of that audit has been rocky, county officials said

The school system's unwillingness to provide complete documents has created a "mockery of the audit process," according to an Oct. 26 letter from the council's auditor to the school system's budget director.

The school system refused to provide unredacted legal invoices and billing statements to the council's auditor — even though its outside auditor, CliftonLarsonAllen, was given those unredacted legal billing records, according to the letter.

"I believe we are not being treated as professionals. Documentation we are receiving is so heavily redacted we cannot perform our work properly," the auditor, Craig Glendenning, wrote in an Oct. 27 email to the school board.

The auditor said he will not perform anything that is "political, unprofessional or unethical according to auditing standards."

"I assure you that my reputation within the County and the auditing community is something I am not willing to taint," the auditor wrote in plea to the school board.

John White, the school system's spokesman, defended the school system's decision. The redacted information is confidential. The documents the auditor receives are sufficient to complete a financial audit, White said.

The school system changed it policies for providing those documents this year after advice from legal counsel. Unlike CliftonLarsonAllen, the council's auditor has no contract that protects the documents' confidentiality, according to White.

State auditors cited concerns similar to the council's auditor as the state's Office of Legislative audits completed a routine audit of the school system this year.

At times, the school system resisted requests for timely information, access to documents and access for interviews, said Thomas Barnickel III, the office's legislative auditor.

By law, the council can only request its auditors to complete a financial audit. Unlike a financial audit that reviews finances, a performance audit assesses the efficiency of programs and determines if corrective actions are necessary, according to state law.

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To request a performance audit of specific areas, the council must enter into a contract with the state. The county's governing body and the school board share the cost of the audit.

Strained ties

White welcomed the latest audit request, citing that the school system has earned national industry awards for financial reporting for 12 years.

Like other audits, the school system will implement suggestions from the state audit, White said.

But previous requests have not been so well-received.

Earlier this year, school board Chairwoman Christine O'Connor called the council's ongoing financial audit an attempt to "politicize education as never before."

Now, O'Connor said she no longer sees the audit as an attack against the school system.

"It seems like something that people need to see. ... I don't understand the need, but if the community thinks we need it, that's okay. We'll perform it and show them everything is fine," O'Connor said.

Some local elected officials hope to repair strained ties between the school board and the council.

The audit is a positive step to resolve "differences of opinion" in the community in a transparent way, said Ellen Flynn Giles, vice-chairwoman of the school board.

"You can't move forward if people still have a lot of questions. An audit is one way you can get some answers," Giles said.

School board member Bess Altwerger also welcomed the audit, which she said comes at a time when there is "undoubtable tension" between the council, the school board and Superintendent Renee Foose.

Although the audit could maintain community confident in the school system, Altwerger worries if repeated audits will hurt the school system's reputation.

"My only concern is that our reputation is preserved as the fine school system that it is," she said.

Fox said concerned leaders from the county and the school system must sit down to work together to tackle a situation that is "spiraling a little bit out of control.

"Here we have the top system in the entire country and we ought to be able to work together. I wish there were better ways for us to work together versus causing the level of acrimony developing between all parties," Fox said.

Ball said he requested the performance audit through the council to allow the public to provide feedback on its scope and purpose.

"I want to work with anyone who supports our children, our families and our educators. I will continue to fight to ensure that there is appropriate transparency and accountability.

Responding to concerns by the school system's budget director that his audit requests are a politically motivated tool to further his political career, Ball said public testimony justified the need for audits. Ball has not publicly announced any political plans.

"When you have a state audit, when you have our county auditor, when you have numerous parents and educators all indicate concerns, there is a shared goal of accountability and transparency," Ball said.

The audit will provide information in a transparent manner the public needs to repair the council's relationship with the school board, Terrasa said.

"There have been issues of lack of cooperation we've seen from the school system. We saw that throughout the budget process and the lack of cooperation with our auditor now," Terrasa said. "That has certainly given us pause."

But the council may not have to wait until the results of the audits, Terrasa said.

The election of at least two new school board members this month might alter the balance of power, she said.



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